Congress Tinkers with Internet Regulations

If you were wondering, as I was, who in Washington planned to do anything to protect the interests of individuals and companies that use Internet services -- rather than those that sell them -- the answer came down from Capitol Hill Friday: No one.

On Friday the Republican-dominated House approved a government funding bill that included a provision forbidding the FCC from using its budget to enforce any regulations covering the Internet.

The regulations the FCC set down last December are ridiculously weak and favorable to the telcos who own the Internet backbone. They do, at least, make the case that the FCC should be able to regulate ISPs, if only to make sure consumers and businesses who use the Internet legally can do so according to their own wishes, rather than according to the self-interested policies of their Internet providers.

That's not a role the House recognizes right now, however.

Among the 67 amendments it tacked on to the government funding bill include many that explicitly forbid federal agencies to spend the money Congress is giving them.

It doesn't directly counter the Obama healthcare program, but does deny salaries to government employees assigned to carry it out, or agencies to fund programs to make it work, for example.

They forbid the Defense Dept. to fund parties for senior defense officials. But they also forbid spending to enforce mining regulations, air and water pollution regulations or for the enforcement of inspection and regulation of food supplies.

They also forbid spending on things that are bumper-sticker issues for conservatives, such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change -- which is responsible for creating the scientific assessments on global warming many conservatives consider to be as false as evolution, and for rent or renovation of the U.N.

Judged by the apparent principle that government should have no role in ensuring its citizens have access to clean air, water and food that is relatively unpoisoned, it makes perfect sense to tell the FCC is should have no role in regulating the industry it was created to regulate.

ISPs Gone Wild?

The companies that built and own the backbone of the Internet are, primarily, telecommunications providers -- whose Ma Bell anti-consumer monopolistic behavior made it impossible for customers to even use a phone sold by a third party, let alone get services Ma Bell itself didn't provide.

The FCC's right to regulate was based on the enormous public resources that benefitted AT&T (and other telcos and cable companies, after AT&T was broken up).

The wires over which expensive phone and Internet services flow run across public lands, benefit from rights-of-way granted by the federal government, were often paid for directly by funding to extend phone service to rural America. Communications that run across them are also regulated under federal law just as are letters or packages carried by U.S. Postal Service.

So saying the FCC shouldn't be able to regulate anti-competitive behavior on the Internet just because the communications are in data form rather than voice -- even though both often run across the very same wires, or at least those owned by the very same companies -- is circular and contradictory.

Not that the regulations themselves are that great. The FCC pussy-footed around the whole issue for years before issuing regulations based largely on suggestions by the telcos.

They theoretically create a level playing field by forbidding carriers from blocking or impeding traffic from competitors, but allow "reasonable" network management, meaning blocking or impeding traffic from competitors, in order to keep their own networks running up to speed.

Theoretically Comcast should be forbidden from throttling video traffic from Netflix just to make sure its own video-on-demand service is more attractive to consumers. In reality, any traffic from outside qualifies to be managed, so Comcast can continue its years-long policy of slowing that traffic as it goes through Comcast's infrastructure.

That seems primarily like a consumer issue, and one that would annoy you most if you were a Comcast subscriber at home (in which case you'd have a lot of reasons to be annoyed).

It applies to business Internet connections, as well, however, including mobile networks that are almost completely exempt from even the weak regs the FCC already released.

Bandwidth Needs Attention

Carriers are running full tilt to expand their mobile networks and attract new customers to cash in on the iPhone/iPad/iNeed-Another-Wireless-Device craze, so they're adding speed, not subtracting it. In a year, if growth slows, mobile data begins swamping existing networks, or they find business customers aren't buying services with the highest margins, they're free to throttle you back.

If you want to buy a set amount of mobile bandwidth from Verizon, and use other providers for mobile VoIP, data, VPN, security or other services, it would be free to tell you no. Or charge you is if you were using its services in order to run competing versions from somewhere else.

Not that Verizon would try to squeeze customers for a few extra bucks using dirty tricks like that, of course.

With no standing to regulate the Internet, the FCC might not be able to respond to situations like that, as it did with the Verizon's apparently intentional creation of a revenue stream from "erroneous data charges."

In addition to providing much of the input for the FCC's loopholed net neutrality regulations, Verizon is suing the FCC in federal court to try to establish in law that the FCC has no jurisdiction over Verizon's ability to gouge customers online.

If the Senate approves the House version of the funding bill, or fails to eliminate the net-neutrality amendment, the FCC might not even be able to pay lawyers to defend in court its right to do the job it already does, let alone add the Internet explicitly to its portfolio.

The Washington D.C. Circuit Court, which has ruled in favor of telcos in the past, will be the only thing standing between those of us who use the Internet and an era of complete laissez-faire predation by Internet providers.

Anything you'd like to do online would have to be according to public policy set by your ISP, and the ISPs with which it connects (all of them).

Which would certainly be better, the House would have to agree, because the government would be out of the business of regulating the Internet.

Because public policy set by companies with a financial interest in allowing or denying your right to do what you want online is always more fair than rules created by an elected government whose goal is supposed to be serving and protecting the people that elected it.

Kevin Fogarty writes about enterprise IT for ITworld. Follow him on Twitter @KevinFogarty.

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