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Net neutrality and S.F.

President Obama took to YouTube to announce his call for the Federal Communications Commission to ensure equal treatment of data and sites on the Internet. photo: white house

On Nov. 10, President Barack Obama spoke to the nation about his plan for the federal government to institute “the strongest possible rules” to protect net neutrality. But he might well have been talking to San Francisco, which has a lot at stake in a controversy that can sound abstract and detailed to the layman.

What is net neutrality, and why does it matter to San Francisco?

Internet neutrality refers to equal treatment — same transmission speeds and pricing — for all data transmitted by Internet service providers, regardless of the content, site, application, mode of communication, or other details. Data is data; if you are viewing a video on YouTube, that data should not be delivered any faster or slower than if you were downloading a slide presentation from work or playing an online game.

Supporters of net neutrality worry that large Internet service providers (ISPs) could provide higher-quality service to content providers that pay them special fees, or they could slow down service for sites and content providers that either don’t pay fees or that otherwise are out of favor with the ISP.

San Francisco is not only the home to humongous tech and social media firms and their employees — firms that spend millions to lobby Congress to get laws that benefit them — but it is also the place where many small companies get started, hoping to build enough online momentum so they can attract a critical mass of customers and become viable long-term successes. And it’s the home to small businesses and nonprofits that use the Internet as an extension of their brick-and-mortar retail shops or art galleries or training classes.

The president’s statement was a public call for the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to make rules safeguarding net neutrality, but it wasn’t an order. As he notes in his statement, “The FCC is an independent agency, and ultimately this decision is theirs alone.”

Specifically, he called for the agency to ensure the following:

  • No blocking. If a consumer requests access to a legal website or service, an ISP should not be allowed to block it.
  • No throttling. ISPs should not be able to intentionally slow down some content or speed up others (called “throttling”) based on the type of service or your ISP’s preferences.
  • Increased transparency. The connection between consumers and ISPs — the so-called “last mile” — is not the only place some sites might get special treatment. Therefore, the president asked the FCC to make full use of transparency authorities that have been upheld recently in court and, if necessary, apply net neutrality rules to points of interconnection between the ISP and the rest of the Internet.
  • No paid prioritization. No service should be stuck in a “slow lane” because it does not pay a fee. Obama said “that kind of gatekeeping would undermine the level playing field essential to the Internet’s growth. So, as I have before, I am asking for an explicit ban on paid prioritization and any other restriction that has a similar effect.”

District 8 Supervisor Scott Wiener quickly praised the president’s move. “President Barack Obama’s unequivocal push for net neutrality is a major step forward to ensure an Internet that’s open and accessible to everyone,” Wiener wrote on his Facebook page. “Thank you, Mr. President.”

It is a concern shared in cities across the country. In a meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors this past June in Dallas, San Francisco Mayor Edwin Lee joined with 16 mayors to co-sponsor a resolution urging the FCC to include net neutrality in its Internet regulations. The resolution passed unanimously.

“Net neutrality is critical for an innovation economy to thrive, because if the broadband companies could choose what web pages you can access, the Internet would lose its power as the most powerful communication tool we’ve ever known,” said Lee. “We believe in transparency and comprehensive non-discrimination, and we will fight for these values as the FCC writes regulations in the coming months. There are serious implications for commerce and democracy, and we’re making sure U.S. cities have a voice in this fight.”

Boston Mayor Martin Walsh echoed those sentiments, saying that “An uneven and restricted playing field for tech companies will mean fewer jobs, higher hurdles for newer companies, and less access to the internet for all. None of us want that.”

Critics of net neutrality have argued that it is unfair interference in private commercial decisions. Texas Senator Ted Cruz made a media splash by calling the president’s plan “Obamacare for the Internet,” later explaining that federal regulation wasn’t the way to go and that this is mostly a dispute between large companies on both sides — big ISPs and big content providers.

Cruz is joined in his criticism of the approach by many cable and major telecommunications providers, as well as pro-market libertarian groups.

If U.S. regulators adopt net neutrality, the United States will be joining countries ranging from Israel to Brazil to Japan, where it has been institutionalized in one form or another. That could impact a lot of people here in San Francisco, ranging from the companies doing business over the net to users accessing it through the city’s new free WiFi in select locations.

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John Zipperer is the former executive editor of Internet World magazine. E-mail: john@marinatimes.com