On Wednesday, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler stuck a shiv between the ribs of network neutrality. Based on his proposed rules, "the principle that all internet content should be treated equally as it flows through cables and pipes to consumers looks all but dead," says Edward Wyatt at The New York Times. But Wheeler didn't kill net neutrality. He said so himself.
"There are reports that the FCC is gutting the Open Internet rule," Wheeler said in a statement. "They are flat out wrong." His new proposal, he said, is to "restore the concepts of net neutrality" in a way that's consistent with the ruling of a federal appeals court in January, which struck down (for the second time) the FCC's earlier net neutrality rules. "There is no 'turnaround in policy,'" Wheeler continued. "The same rules will apply to all internet content."
So what is Wheeler proposing, and why should you care? Essentially, he would allow content providers (Netflix, Amazon, Disney, etc.) to strike preferential deals with internet service providers (Comcast, Time Warner Cable, Verizon, AT&T, etc.) for direct routes to their customers — "the digital equivalent of an uncongested carpool lane on a busy freeway," explains The Times' Wyatt. Companies that refused to pay for the special lane, or couldn't afford it, would have slower service to your house, depending on the whims of your ISP.
Technically, that's not a neutral internet. There are legitimate concerns that this rule, if enacted as envisioned, will turn the internet into a reflection of how the world works, with the rich and powerful using their clout and dollars to maintain their advantages and keep the smaller, newer players in the second tier or lower. But as long as no ISP can throttle or discriminate against traffic of any legal content, as promised, the biggest short-term impact to consumers will probably be higher fees for services that pay for the fast lane.
Net neutrality proponents are understandably skeptical of Wheeler, a former top lobbyist for the cable and telecom industries. But this weak-tea neutrality is neither fully his fault — the U.S. Court of Appeals, D.C. circuit, bears most of the blame — nor is it necessarily the death knell for an open internet. It's just the beginning of a slightly stratified one.