The Federal Communications Commission has awakened a sleeping giant.
It takes a lot to get the American people to take action -- something that can be seen in our generally low voter turnout. But when U.S. citizens realize a federal agency that supposedly protects them has decided to sneak through rules that benefit cable companies while harming the public, it gets our collective attention.
The FCC extended the Tuesday deadline for people to respond to the commission's proposed open Internet rules. These are the rules that HBO's "Last Week Tonight" host, John Oliver, drew attention to in a wickedly funny segment that I wrote about in "Can John Oliver Force the FCC's Hand on Net Neutrality?". It seems the comedian's efforts to at least make the public pay attention have been successful.
The FCC has received about 670,000 comments on its proposal. And even though about two-thirds of those came through email rather than the online system, the FCC website has not been able to handle the volume.
"Not surprisingly, we have seen an overwhelming surge in traffic on our website that is making it difficult for many people to file comments through our Electronic Comment Filing System," an FCC announcement said. "Please be assured that the Commission is aware of these issues and is committed to making sure that everyone trying to submit comments will have their views entered into the record."
Because of the failing website, the FCC extended the comments period through the rest of Friday, until the clock strikes midnight.
What is being commented on?
FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, a former cable industry lobbyist, wrote a new set of rules that would define how content is treated on the Internet. For most of the life of the Internet, true net neutrality was in place. All content had to be treated equally. Those rules changed in January when the FCC lost a court ruling that makes it legal for ISPs to treat digital traffic differently.
In response to that ruling, Wheeler and the FCC have attempted to pass a new set of rules that protect some aspects of net neutrality while making it legal for content companies to make deals with broadband providers for preferential treatment. The chairman's proposal has been met with disdain by supporters of net neutrality.
Netflix (NASDAQ:NFLX), which has made deals for better treatment with Comcast (NASDAQ:CMCSA) and Verizon (NYSE:VZ), has made its dislike of having to make those agreements very clear. The company uses a lot of bandwidth and stands to pay dearly if the FCC proposal passes. (The current agreements were made under the temporary legality of such deals).
Other companies that would seem to be less affected by net neutrality have also spoken up against the proposal.
One of the comments sent to the FCC website was Chad Dickerson, CEO of Etsy, the online crafts site.
"If the proposed rules were in place when Etsy was founded, we would never have achieved the success we have today," Dickerson wrote.
If even a low-bandwidth user like Etsy, which is essentially a sales site that relies on pictures, is worried about these rules, then it seems likely the FCC is underestimating how much damage this can do. From Facebook to Google, many of the biggest online companies started as little more than a dream with no resources. If the so-called Internet fast lane is approved, then companies with money can slam the door shut on the next generation of bootstrapped start-ups.
How does the public feel?
It took some time, but the flood of attention given to this previously under-the-radar topic -- helped along mightily by Oliver -- has gotten the American public to speak up against what the FCC has proposed. The vast majority of the comments posted about net neutrality on the FCC website are against the rules.
The Daily Dot conducted what it described as "an admittedly less-than-scientific analysis" of the comments. The site looked through the most recent 10,000 and picked 400 at random to determine how many commenters wanted full net neutrality preserved and how many wanted to ditch the concept in favor of allowing the free market to regulate itself. Of the 400 comments examined, the site found only four that could be interpreted as being against net neutrality.
"The other 396 slammed major broadband providers like Comcast and Time Warner Cable, called net neutrality 'the most important civil rights issue of this generation,' and said a lot of mean things about FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, who was formerly the head of the cable industry's chief lobbying group (but adamantly denies he's biased)," the site reported.
What is going to happen?
Though the Daily Dot numbers are admittedly a small sample, they are in line with what is being reported elsewhere. Realistically, how could any person not in the employ of an Internet service provider support a tiered Internet? If ISPs can exact tolls from some companies, those businesses will have to pass them on to their customers, while you can be sure the ISPs won't use their new-found riches to lower prices.
This is a clear case of an incredibly biased FCC chief getting caught trying to sneak through rules that only benefit his former employers. The American public has called him on his actions and the FCC needs to listen.