San Francisco Chronicle - The Internet turns into a toll road

January 30, 2014
In The News
The Internet is a wide open highway for every kind of digital traffic. But a federal appeals court decision changes this vital feature by allowing firms who run the broadband pipelines to charge higher rates for their bigger customers, meaning consumers could face larger bills and spotty service.

The court case shreds the notion of "net neutrality," the doctrine giving equal priority to all Internet traffic. Service providers such as Comcast, Verizon and AT&T have chafed at the idea as they spend billions to improve service. For these firms, it's time to charge major users such as Netflix, Google and iTunes a higher rate since their products are soaking up much of the bandwidth.

This business argument has major repercussions. If the ruling stands, the Internet could fundamentally change, and not for the better. Service will evolve into a toll road with movies, music and other high-traffic commodities costing more. A website that doesn't want to pay extra for quick connection will be shafted with slower service. It won't be the open, accessible Internet any more.

There's a crumb of legal consolation in the decision, which may be appealed to the Supreme Court. The Federal Communications Commission, which adopted a hands-off attitude as the Internet developed, could seek new rules to oversee and moderate financial abuses. In fact, the appeals court judges recognized that the agency had a role to play in the Internet's future.

That next step will hinge on Washington's political mood. Republicans, who want to restrain the FCC, aren't inclined to fight the court decision, which came after years of legislative debate that went nowhere. Democrats, including President Obama, believe net neutrality should be preserved as the online world plays an ever-growing role in society.

Rep. Anna Eshoo, a Democrat who represents a tech-dominated Peninsula district, said the case meant that "the open Internet suffers a blow, but it is not irreparable."

It will be up to her and the rest of Congress to modernize Internet oversight. Access and innovation can't be left to the whims of a handful of major firms running an indispensable part of modern life.