Common sense is a notion that presumes much about human character in general, if such a thing exists, as well as the ability of an individual to truly shake off prejudice and prepossession in the interests of seeing a thing “clearly.” Take Tom Paine, for instance, one of the better-known advocates for common sense, who argued that the benefits rendered from American colonies’ allegiance to the British crown were issued at the expense of the colonists’ natural rights and that they were in fact not benefits at all when set against the possibilities open to a free republic not required to enrich through their labor an essentially foreign power. Paine has been criticized for oversimplifying the process of turning British subjects into Americans, but often oversimplification is the price for rhetorical effectiveness. In any event, for some it wasn’t all that cut and dry whether the betrayal of one tyrant wouldn’t result in being subjected to tyranny in some other form.
Common sense became a rallying cry again today, this one spurred by President Barack Obama’s statement on Internet neutrality and his issuing of “common-sense steps,” or “bright-line rules” for ensuring that internet service providers are appropriately regulated and that access to the Internet, by consumers and purveyors of goods and ideas alike, is not determined by the size of one’s bank account. That has been the burning question over the past several months, even years, as ISPs have argued that, since certain entities use more bandwidth than others to disseminate their services or content, a tiered structure of access was fair, even necessary. Use more, pay more might be the simplest, if not exactly the most accurate way of putting this.
While on its face this might seem like elementary market logic, it would mark the death of the Internet as a free or “neutral” domain where the wares and arguments of the most resourceless, put-upon plebe can compete with those backed by the boundless wealth of conglomerates and governments. ISPs would be able to free up more bandwidth, and effectively reserve faster Internet delivery, for those who could pay premium prices. At risk of hyperbolizing, it would be as if the powers that be handed out smartphones to the big guys, while John Q. Public and his ilk would be issued stationery, postage and a pack mule to share with his neighbors. That’s the bad ending many net neutrality advocates see, anyway.
President Obama came out in favor of John Q. Public today, advising the Federal Communications Commission to come up with stricter regulations for ISPs to prevent such “fast tracking” services. The foundation of such regulation would those common-sense steps referenced earlier:
First, no ISP would be allowed to block consumer access to websites of services. “[E]very player— not just those commercially affiliated with an ISP — gets a fair shot at your business.”
Second, ISPs would be prohibited from intentionally slowing down or speeding up services, something called “throttling,” based on the type of service you might have. Equal access would remain the standard.
Third, increased transparency in how the connection between ISPs and consumers gets regulated. The argument here is that there is more than one way to skin a cat, and ISPs remain tirelessly creative in establishing special treatment for certain, let’s say, well-to-do clients.
Finally, “paid prioritization” is verboten. “No service should be stuck in a ‘slow lane’ because it does not pay a fee.” Obama made it clear that he wanted the FCC to maintain the “level playing field essential to the Internet’s growth.”
Of course, big-name and big-moneyed providers aren’t going to take attempts at enacting more encompassing regulation lying down. But their efforts might be be moot if Obama gets his wish and ISPs are reclassified as “common carriers” under Title II of the Communications Act. If this were to happen, the Internet and those that provide it would be subject to regulation on par with phone services.
While the fact that Obama came out on the side of net neutrality advocates is big news, nothing he favored in his statement is reality just yet. Nor are there guarantees that the FCC ultimately hands down regulations that reflect Obama’s interpretation of “common sense.” A political fight is ahead for the president, and not much time has passed since his party suffered significant defeats at the ballot box. Some, like Texas Senator Ted Cruz, have tried to point out that “net neutrality” is a misnomer if it entails more government regulation. Following the president’s remarks, Cruz tweeted that net neutrality is “Obamacare for the Internet; the Internet should not operate at the speed of government.”
Whatever the FCC finally decides––prior to the release of Obama’s plan for a “free and open Internet” and in spite of around four million emails sent to the FCC by concerned citizens, it appeared as if a hybrid plan, one that allowed for ISPs to institute a tiered structure in some form, was favored––it certainly doesn’t seem like everyone involved will find that decision sensible, in the common sense of the term.