On September tenth, we might see a lot of the dreaded “spinning wheel of death,” that symbol that appears when a web page is slowly loading. It’s a gimmick contrived by a coalition of advocacy groups, to stimulate public comment on the FCC website in favor of net neutrality…and against letting Internet Service Providers charge rich websites tolls for faster service, while slowing down everyone else. The idea is to trigger outrage, much as we saw in the fight against the legislation called SOPA, that would’ve given broader rights to ISPs to block content they deemed as pirated. But never fear, says Parker Higgins, of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the spinning wheel will just be animation; the internet won’t really beslowing down.
HIGGINS: Right. It's as if the internet is going slow as sort of reminder to people why it's so important that everybody have access to the same kinds of internet speeds.
GARFIELD: So here's what you're up against: Parker say the words 'net neutrality.' Just say them out loud.
HIGGINS: Net neutrality
HIGGINS: Did you fall asleep for a second? Even the guy who coined 'net neutrality' has said, well I didn't know that we were going to be talking about it so much or I would have chosen something less boring. What we've seen is even wrapped in this really boring name, you know, already the FCC has gotten over a million comments on this issue. And already it's been in the news. And we've seen a lot of momentum and we're hoping that given the September 10th action we've got a number of sort of major online destinations that are signing up to take part. That people will dig a little deeper and realize that even though it's not the most exciting name, it's absolutely related to things people care about deeply.
GARFIELD: So what you have going for you is this history, unaccountable history of public interest in this as you arcane policy issue. What you have working against you is some jurisprudence. Can you tell me about the US Appeals Court decision that kind of triggered this whole discussion.
HIGGINS: Sure. The FCC had previously written a set of open internet rules which they thought would more or less assure net neutrality and then those rules were taken to court by ISPs. And the Court found the rules were unenforceable based on the classification. So as long you call ISPs - internet service providers - a certain kind of service the FCC doesn't have enough power over them to regulate the rules.
GARFIELD: But, if you were to call them a common carrier then all of a sudden the regulatory environment would change.
HIGGINS: Yes. We're looking for reclassification. We'd want to make sure that the reclassification is done right. That doesn't give the FCC too much power. But there's a way to do this that would end with a more neutral net and an outcome that we could all satisfied with. The reason that there's any pushback against reclassification at all is that it requires a lot of political will. You know, there are people - especially cable companies and ISPs - that won't be elated to be in this new category but it's something the FCC has the political power to do.
GARFIELD: The chairman of the FCC Tom Wheeler is of the telecom industry. That's where he came from. And now he has a lot of power to dictate the FCC's path here. In the end does it really matter how many millions of complaints the FCC fields if the game is rigged in the telecom's favor?
HIGGINS: Well (laughs). If the game is really rigged then we're in trouble. But the FCC is made up of largely good people who want to do the right thing. I think that it's really hard to look at more than a million really thoughtful comments from people and say "ok but we're going to do with these handful of cable companies want us to do." So it's not a sure thing, but that's why we're really trying to make sure that we get one last push of comments before they close this round and really let the FCC know this is not something people are just going to ignore. You know, I don't wanna jinx it. But I think that we're coming to a good place where the FCC realizes what the right thing to do is.
GARFIELD: Parker Higgins is an activist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation specializing in issues at the intersection of freedom of speech, copyright, trademark and patent law. Parker (yawns) thank you very much.
HIGGINS: Thank you. Did somebody say 'net neutrality?'