The upcoming Republican takeover of the U.S. Senate could have significant effects on the managing of the Internet. The good news is that those effects will be all positive.
The big battleground issue is, of course, so-called net neutrality. It’s the idea that the federal government should forcibly prevent internet service providers from charging higher access fees to web destinations that use inordinate amounts of bandwidth.
Specifically, Netflix, Google’s YouTube, Facebook, and other sites that provide popular streaming services and other high-traffic destinations use up a huge proportion of the internet’s bandwidth, and they want to ensure that internet providers such as AT&T, Comcast, and the like are prevented from charging them fees more reflective of the strains they put on the web infrastructure.
Those web providers have a terrific deal going now: a huge, nearly free distribution system. Instead of having to build out a distribution system themselves, as the cable and satellite companies had to do in prior decades, they simply plug into the system built by others and make a fortune delivering their programming over other people’s pipes.
The internet providers want to be able to negotiate fair charges from big bandwidth users. The streamers’ solution has been to lobby Congress and the Federal Communications Commission to prevent internet providers from “throttling” (slowing down) their sites’ bandwidth use in lieu of getting just compensation from the big bandwidth-using companies. They have also financed ostensibly left-wing front groups to create the illusion of a huge public clamor for Congress to do the bidding of Google, Facebook, Netflix, and the like.
Interestingly, some of the big bandwidth users have already begun doing the very thing the FCC is being called upon to ban: negotiating deals with internet service providers to ensure that their sites and services are given priority access.
The FCC tried to impose net neutrality by fiat, without congressional approval, in 2010, but a federal appeals court struck the rule down this past January, stating unequivocally that the FCC did not have the authority to do so. The FCC now proposes to change the regulatory apparatus under which the internet is categorized, to regulate internet service providers as a “common carrier,” like a telephone company, instead of its current classification as an information service.
That, the theory goes, would allow the FCC to impose net neutrality on internet service providers.
With the Democratic majority in the Senate, and Sen. Harry Reid’s use of altered Senate rules to ensure nothing that would stand in the way of President Obama’s agenda would be brought to a vote in the Senate or even receive a public hearing there, there was no chance that Congress would stand in the way of the FCC’s desired rule change. Note that what halted the FCC’s first attempt at imposing net neutrality was a federal court, not Congress or the president.
With the Republicans taking over the Senate, however, Republican Sen. John Thune of South Dakota is in line to become chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee. Thune opposes a net neutrality mandate. Thus any move by the FCC to impose net neutrality would result in a strong challenge from the Senate, likely including a fierce grilling of FCC chairman Tom Wheeler.
That threat may be enough to keep the FCC from imposing the new regulatory regime, but that will probably depend in great part on how feisty President Obama is feeling. In any case, prospects of a federal net neutrality mandate have surely diminished somewhat with the change in Senate control.