Blown To Bits

The FCC Can’t Regulate the Internet

Tuesday, April 6th, 2010 by Harry Lewis

When the FCC landed on Comcast for slowing Bittorrent traffic to a crawl–in essence, discouraging people from watching Internet movies, and steering them to their Comcast Cable TV channels instead–Comcast took the FCC to court. Comcast protested on three grounds, but the basic ground was that the FCC had no authority to tell Comcast to do anything with its Internet service. A panel of three judges has unanimously ruled that Comcast is correct (and therefore didn’t bother with Comcast’s arguments #2 and #3). Public Knowledge has a good explanation of the decision and where it leaves us.

I am disappointed, but I can’t say I am surprised. Congress did not anticipate the Internet when it made telephone regulations, just at it didn’t anticipate the telephone or the radio when it made telegraph regulations. So if there is going to be net neutrality, it appears Congress will have to act. That was on Obama’s campaign agenda, but regulation of anything is not an easy sell in Washington.

Yet it is clear that monopolies are a bad idea, and the business community, except for Verizon, Comcast, and a few other biggies, should support the free flow of bits over the Internet pipes. My previous post is remarkably relevant on this point. Listen to Gardiner Hubbard’s description from 125 years ago of the fate of one small business bullied by the Western Union monopoly:

A few years ago a man started a news bureau in Cincinnati. A correspondent in New-York filed the market reports each morning and the Cincinnati gentleman sold the information to customers. The Western Union asked him to sell out to them and he refused; thereupon his messages were taken away from the “through” wire and sent by a “way” wire. The difference in time was an hour, and the man was ruined. (New York Times, February 8, 1883)

As far as I can see, there is no reason why Comcast couldn’t do exactly the same thing tomorrow. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

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