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The very non-neutral debate over Net neutrality

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Compared with the rather humdrum reaction that greets most FCC's proceedings -- drab, technical debates on things like spectrum allocation and the digital television transition -- a survey of the talk coming from this morning's hearing suggests that something truly sensational happened.

By now, no doubt, you've heard the news.

The deeply divided commission [voted](/government/article.php/3762801/FCC+Traffic+Throttling+Not+Comcastic.htm) to rebuke Comcast for the way it has been managing its network and communicating its policies to its subscribers -- namely, "degrading" transmissions from BitTorrent and other peer-to-peer services.

Here's a sampling:

Free Press Executive Director Josh Silver, on a conference call with reporters following the hearing:

"Today's decision by the Federal Communications Commission will go down in history as one of the most important milestones in the fight for an open, accessible Internet."

Affirming Commissioner Michael Copps:

"This is a landmark decision for the FCC -- a meaningful stride forward on the road to guaranteed openness of the Internet. ... We recognize that protecting Internet openness is like protecting the Internet's immune system, safeguarding it from bugs and infections that could slow its circulation, make it sick, maybe even kill it."

And a few gems from dissenting Commissioner Robert McDowell at the hearing this morning:

"For us to enjoy online video without interruption or distortion, video bits have to be given priority over, say, e-mail bits. But now that all traffic must be treated equally, that is going to change. The new regime is tantamount to a congested downtown area without stoplights. Gridlock is likely to result."

"By depriving engineers of the freedom to manage these surges of information flow by having to treat all traffic equally as the result of today's order, the Information Superhighway could quickly become the Information Parking Lot."

"For the first time, today our government is choosing regulation over collaboration when it comes to Internet governance."

"So today, for the first time in Internet history, we say 'goodbye' to the era of collaboration that served the Internet community and consumers so well for so long; and we say 'hello' to unneeded regulation and all of its unintended consequences."

Note that all of those came after McDowell had declared, "Continued escalation of rhetoric serves no one well, least of all American consumers."

The rhetoric indeed flies high from both sides on this issue. It's towering. It's also maddeningly conflicting: both sides claim that if the other carries the day, it will be the end of innovation and the Internet will grow unwieldy, slow and decadent. And whither goes America's prestige.

What really happened this morning? The FCC voted to enforce a rather narrow policy (protocol-agnostic traffic management) that Comcast had already said it was moving toward anyway. It's just going to make sure.

And Comcast is going to sue. Maybe.

But remember, we're playing for big stakes here. So if the court upholds the ruling, then what happens?

At the first sign of a compliance violation, Kevin Martin will frog-march Brian Roberts down Constitution Avenue for a summary trial at FCC headquarters, where a Swiss flag will billow ominously. The proceeding will be a pig-circus, the jury packed with leering liberals plucked from the ranks of MoveOn.org, Public Knowledge and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, with Josh Silver grimly presiding as foreman.

Then, properly defanged, Roberts will be shipped back to Philadelphia, where he will promptly terminate all operations that would expand the network's capacity and reach. Engineers will be replaced wholesale by brigades of compliance officers, who will spend their days checking off boxes on endless forms and attending government-led obedience-training sessions. The dream of universal broadband will die on the vine; the poor and ignorant will remain poor and ignorant; the digital divide will simply become a digital void.

But what if Comcast wins in court, and this great victory for Net neutrality is erased?

Why, the death of innovation as we know it, of course! Insatiable ISPs will bleed Google's coffers dry, extracting quality-of-service fees that will slay the great white whale that Microsoft could never catch. Then what? Since this will be the End of Innovation, there will be no two-geeks-in-a-garage startup that will rise to take Google's place. Instead, they will take network-engineering jobs at AT&T and Comcast, toiling in service of a great, bloated relic to deliver a homogeneous sludge of content and services.

Maybe. Or maybe McDowell was right to say that escalating "rhetoric serves no one well, least of all American consumers."

A nod of commonsense also goes to dissenting Commissioner Deborah Tate, who amicably concluded that the debate is a splendid reminder that "reasonable minds truly can differ."

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