Net Neutrality: Confusion Reigns

A national survey released last week revealed that most Americans don’t have a clue what “net neutrality” means.

If true (and it is, even among TV executives) that doesn’t bode well for smooth assimilation into the regulatory construct of new FCC rules governing the Internet.

The phone survey by Hart Research Associates, with 800 adults 18 and over, echoes what I’ve gleaned talking to TV executives: Nearly three out of four (74%) Americans are unfamiliar with the term “net neutrality” and what it actually means.

In its simplest form, “net neutrality” means that cable and phone companies, which own the main plumbing of the Internet, should not block content or discriminate and should manage their networks transparently.

Beyond that, anyone trying to describe it to a lay person will see listeners zone out within seconds, typically accompanied by a nictitating membrane covering the eyes and slow, polite nods.

Now, the debate has evolved into a such a confusing cacophony of strident free-speech declarations and network- management business-speak that it’s little wonder most consumers are stumped. The term itself has been intentionally co-opted by giant corporations on both sides of the debate to the point where it means whatever its supporters want it to mean — which would require a mind reader with a law degree to divine, and maybe not even then.

That explains, in part, why 73% of Americans want greater disclosure of the details of the FCC’s proposal to regulate the Internet. FCC chairman Tom Wheeler has proposed regulating the Internet like a utility under Title II of the Communications Act to ensure his — and President Obama’s — vision of net neutrality.

But only one in three Americans, the survey found, thinks that regulating the Internet like telephone service will be helpful. It’s a fact that belies the confusion: Big free-speech fans — some of the very “Save the Internet!” viewers roused by comedian John Oliver’s acerbically funny dissection of Big Cable on his HBO series Last Week Tonight — really don’t trust big government to do the job either.

Is broadband so essential that the government should be more active in regulating a flourishing, privately capitalized Internet?

Wheeler seems to think that is just the role the FCC needs, given his view of ISPs as the potentially competition-crushing link in the virtuous cycle of edge to net to consumer.

He may not feel it is appropriate to make details of the new rules public before the coming vote, but he should do so afterward, and ASAP.