Let's Unlock Our Cell Phones & Unbundle Our Cable Services & Leave Those Carriers That Are Against Net Neutrality!
And Unbundle Our Cable Services
And Leave Those Carriers
That Are Against Net Neutrality!
However, We Can Also Boycott Those Companies Starting Immediately!
House Clears Legislation to Unlock Cellphones
Law Would Allow Consumers to Switch Phone to Other Wireless Carrier
WASHINGTON—The House on Friday cleared legislation to allow consumers to unlock their cellphones so they can transfer them to other wireless carriers, a rare case of bipartisan cooperation in time of legislative gridlock.
The White House issued a statement Friday indicating that President Barack Obama would sign the bill, which the senate passed last week, into law.
Cellphone unlocking is the practice of changing a phone's settings so users can switch wireless carriers without purchasing a new phone. Some mobile devices are sold unlocked, while others require users to install software or other means to circumvent the pre-assigned wireless carrier. The practice has been banned due to a clause in copyright law that prohibits technical workarounds, or altering the default security settings on a device.
Cellphone unlocking had previously been allowed through an exemption to the law that expired in January 2013. But when the Librarian of Congress, who oversees such exemptions, chose to not to renew it in 2012, the practice became illegal.
Both parties and the White House criticized the librarian's decision, and Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler organized a voluntary commitment from the major wireless carriers to allow consumers to unlock their cellphones. But both Democrats and Republicans agreed that a legislative fix was still needed.
The legislation renews the exemption for cellphone unlocking until 2015. The House in February passed cellphone unlocking legislation that included controversial provisions on the unlocking of multiple phones; the leadership of both chambers' judiciary committees worked together to reach an agreement that omitted the language from the final bill.
"During these tough economic times, consumers deserve to have options in what carriers they choose and what phones they want to use," said Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, the top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee.
While the issue has united lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, it has also become an example of how outdated laws are regarding technology and digital copyright issues.
A graphic making its rounds on the web this week offered a glimpse of what the Internet might look like if net neutrality disappears. The takeaway? Not good.
A federal appeals court on Tuesday struck down an Federal Communications Commission order that required Internet service providers to abide by the rules of “net neutrality.” ISPs had previously been forced to treat all types of web traffic equally -- meaning providers couldn’t block some sites or speed up loading times for others. Tuesday's decision means corporations can now block or slow down loading times for pages they don’t like, or could charge businesses a fee to have their pages load more quickly -- or at all.
Now, consumers looking to get Internet access might be met with something like this hypothetical set of pricing options like this, pointed out by Buzzfeed earlier this week:
This graphic was created by Reddit user quink, who wanted to illustrate what happens if net neutrality disappears. Originally created when Comcast tried to appeal the FCC's right to enforce net neutrality in 2009, the graphic is experiencing a renaissance in relevance after the ruling this week.
Though the FCC could try to rewrite its rule or appeal the decision, in the meantime ISPs like Comcast, Verizon, AT and T and Time Warner Cable are free to make deals with companies promising quicker content delivery in exchange for payment -- essentially creating Internet "fast lanes" for wealthy companies and making their websites easier to access than those of nonprofits, activist groups and smaller competitors.
Quink's graphic shows web-based service offerings (offered by the fictional TELCO ADSL) that look suspiciously like cable bundles. Very, very basic Internet is offered for a "starter" price of $29.95, while popular sites are bundled together and offered as optional add-ons for $5 to $10. As costs add up, people in quink's world are left with tough choices -- choosing, for instance, between access to online marketplaces and access to the news.
As for smaller sites? In quink's hypothetical world without net neutrality, they're out of luck. Any sites outside the bundles might count towards a data cap, while sites in the bundles wouldn't, or small sites might just load really, really slowly.
Presumably, websites that want to be included in "bundles" would have to pay providers like TELCO for the privilege. It may sound crazy, but it's the future envisioned by experts who talk about what the end of net neutrality might mean for small businesses.
"Information shouldn't become a luxury," Todd O’Boyle, program director of the liberal advocacy organization Common Cause, told The Huffington Post earlier this week. And yet it's clear that at least as far as the purveyors of cable television are concerned, information is a luxury -- and one that should be paid for. Those who subscribe to Time Warner Cable's expensive "Preferred TV" bundle get access to all the TV news channels, while subscribers to Time Warner's relatively bare-bones "Starter TV" bundle must content themselves with C-SPAN and Time Warner Cable News NY1.
Will the end of net neutrality see ISPs imitating cable companies? It seems likely, given that many ISPs already are cable companies.
The more pressing question is whether the FCC and the federal government will allow this to happen. Some commentators, like the Atlantic's Kevin Werbach, believe the D.C. Circuit Court's ruling will simply pave the way for better enforcement of net neutrality in the future. We certainly hope he's right.
A Grave Situation For Consumers
Net neutrality isn't just a popular buzzword; it's the guiding concept behind a set of rules adopted by the FCC in 2010. The Open Internet rules are intended to promote Internet service provider transparency, and prevent ISPs from blocking or unreasonably discriminating against lawful online content. However, the appeals court ruled that the FCC doesn't have the authority to dictate how ISPs grant access to content, though the agency retained its ability to regulate broadband providers on more general terms.
The trouble for consumers is that this ruling leaves room for provider abuses. Without regulation from the FCC, broadband providers could "either block competing internet services on their landline networks, or charge those companies extra for features like guaranteed delivery or higher performance," according to Engadget. For example, an ISP like Comcast could feasibly ask a website like DealNews to pay a fee to guarantee Comcast customers access to the site. If the site chose to pay, then another ISP like Verizon could block its users' access to their articles because that site was working with a competitor. And because many ISPs have a monopoly over the broadband in their service areas, consumers will just have to deal with throttled speeds and blocked sites — or give up their Internet access.
Net Neutrality Limps On (For Now)
All is not yet lost for net neutrality. Tuesday's ruling is likely to be appealed, if not by the FCC, then by consumer advocacy groups. Another option would be for Congress to pass a law giving the FCC more power to regulate broadband, but that seems unlikely in the current political climate. According to Slate, the best option would be for the FCC to rewrite its rules, so it can stop classifying the Internet services provided by cable and phone companies as "information services" (which it does not have the authority to regulate), and instead treat them as "telecommunications services" (which the FCC does have authority over).
For what it's worth, in its response to the court's decision, Verizon offered its assurance that customers wouldn't see interruptions in their Internet access: "Verizon has been and remains committed to the open Internet that provides consumers with competitive choices and unblocked access to lawful websites and content when, where, and how they want." Verizon echoed the sentiments of other Internet providers and net neutrality opponents when it hailed the decision, saying it will foster innovation in the marketplace and give customers more choices.
Despite Verizon's rosy words, the reality is that for the time being we are at the mercy of our ISPs. The good news is that the public outrage generated by this decision is likely to spur the FCC to action in quickly repairing the damage to its net neutrality rules.
In a big win for Verizon Communications, AT and T and other broadband providers, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, in a ruling that was 2-1 in part, found that the Federal Communications Commission lacks the authority to impose so-called Net neutrality rules, since broadband isn't classified as a "common-carrier" service. The FCC's Net neutrality rules were similar to some common-carrier rules, the court, in essence, found.
The general ruling was expected, as we reported last month.
Net neutrality mandates that providers can't discriminate in delivering their Internet services. It bars broadband providers — mainly cable TV and phone companies — from blocking Internet content or slowing down access to online content in any discriminatory manner.
The ruling could give broadband providers more room to charge content companies, say Netflix, higher rates to deliver their content at higher speeds to their customers.
The court, however, also said the FCC has "general authority" over how companies provide broadband services, and no doubt there's a long way to go on this issue. The ruling also could be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
As GigaOm put it: The court's ruling is a game-changer because it upsets the FCC's current practice of requiring broadband Internet providers to act akin to "common carriers." In plain English, said GigaOm, this means that they have had to behave in a similar way to phone companies and not give special preference to one type of call (or traffic) over another, even though the FCC's authority to regulate the broadband providers was not clear-cut. This has led to an ongoing attempt by Verizon and others to demand lighter regulation.
As Stifel Nicolaus analyst Christopher King wrote last month: "We believe the impact on content companies (Netflix, Google, Amazon, Walt Disney would be particularly complex, given individual business plans and broader market ripple effects. We believe some might actually view the ruling as an opportunity to strike broadband deals that improve their service or customers' experience," which he said would give broadband providers much leverage.
"We're disappointed that the court came to this conclusion. Its ruling means that Internet users will be pitted against the biggest phone and cable companies — and in the absence of any oversight, these companies can now block and discriminate against their customers' communications at will," Craig Aaron, CEO of Free Press, said in a statement. Free Press bills itself as a nonpartisan organization building a nationwide movement for media that serve the public interest.
Free Press said former FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski made a "grave mistake" by not basing the open Internet rules on solid legal footing. "We look forward to working with (new FCC) Chairman (Tom) Wheeler and the rest of the commission to protect and preserve real Net neutrality," Aaron said.
A couple of months ago, I spent an hour stuck in an inane, semi-scripted "live chat" with a customer-service representative for a large American cable company. I was considering subscribing to the company's services, but I had a very specific request: I wanted to get the lowest-tier TV plan—the fewest channels possible—bundled with the highest-speed Internet service. I also wanted access to premium channels. Was this customized plan possible?
Soon, I thought, all this bundling and plan-choosing nonsense will be over. In a few years' time, as more entertainment and communications services become available over the freewheeling Internet instead of through centrally managed systems like cable TV, many of us will only need to get a single, superfast broadband line (or wireless service) for our homes. This has long been the big promise of the Internet—the great unbundling of digital content from delivery systems like the cable and phone networks, an unbundling that has already helped give us a larger range of programming at lower prices.
But what if my unbundling dream doesn't come to pass? What if, even after we cut the cable cord, tiers of channels and bundles of services simply return to haunt the Internet? With a federal court's decision this week to strike down the Federal Communications Commission's so-called network neutrality rules on home broadband lines—and with telecom giants like AT and T exploring plans to let entertainment companies "sponsor" customers' wireless plans—it's looking like the bundle may never die.
This sets up a business model similar to that of cable, in which entertainment companies and cable providers enter into intense negotiations to determine the various tiers of your cable line-up. In other words, we're witnessing the cableization of the Internet.
Would you take that deal? It depends, of course, on how much you like videos from Google, Amazon and Netflix and whether you could do without iTunes. Proponents say such deals would improve your service and lower your prices—if AT and T were getting paid by content companies for your line, it could theoretically charge you less, and it would have an extra revenue stream to expand its network.
You might not lose much access to services from big companies, either, because AT and T would of course take everyone's money. So if Apple felt that it was losing iTunes sales because it wasn't sponsoring customers' broadband lines, it would simply start paying up.
The counterargument is that content companies would just pass on their extra costs to you. If Netflix had to pay AT and T for part of your data plan, wouldn't it just increase your monthly bill? If Google's YouTube had to do so, wouldn't it just show you more ads?
You may notice something interesting here: The fight over network neutrality is commonly painted as a battle between the cable and phone companies on the one side and the Internet content giants, like Google and Netflix, on the other.
But the battle—which now continues at the FCC—may not be so neat. For today's tech giants, an Internet that is less hospitable to competitive start-ups may not be such a terrible thing. Facebook can afford to pay AT and T a fee to sponsor your AT and T wireless plan. The Harvard freshman dreaming up the next competitor to Facebook won't be able to do that, so accessing her app may cost you. In that respect, the new rules would be a pretty sweet way for today's tech giants to lock in the status quo.
Which, again, would make the Internet much more like cable, where a handful of telecom and content companies determine the bulk of your lineup, and your only choice is the bundle. Choose wisely.
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