Rules to protect the internet's neutrality in America will go into effect this Friday, causing a flurry of efforts of undermine it and some suspicious activity on the part of the cable companies.
The regulations passed by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) at the end of February were formally published in mid-April meaning that 60 days later they go into effect: that would be this coming Friday.
Unless, of course, a Washington DC court decides to approve a stay following petitions from a number of cable companies and their industry bodies (one of which has sent in two diametrically opposing petitions in an effort to get its way on net neutrality).
Just in case the DC court allows the neutrality rules to kick in, Republicans in the US Congress have got in on the action: they have attached a rider to the latest appropriations bill that aims to do two things.
First, prevent the rules from being implemented until the three separate net neutrality court cases (Alamo, USTA and CenturyLink vs FCC) have finished; and, second, prevent the FCC from using any funds to implement its "protecting and promoting the open internet" order [PDF]. Which would not stop the rules from existing, but would stop the FCC from enforcing them.
Meanwhile, even with all these blocking efforts in place, there are some unusual activities going on behind the scenes which may suggest that there is good reason to have the rules in the first place.
You know that thing we said...?
First off, despite the cable companies complaining that the new rules will force them to invest less in their networks, Charter Communications CEO Tom Rutledge has become just the latest to admit that that simply wasn't true.
Rutledge told FCC chairman Tom Wheeler this week that "the commission’s decision to reclassify broadband Internet access under Title II has not altered Charter’s approach of investing significantly in its network to deliver cutting edge services."
That's according to formal minutes of the June 2 meeting. Earlier this year, Charter was among the telcos warning they'll hold off improving their networks if net neutrality is enforced.
Why the turnaround? Charter wants to takeover Time Warner for $56bn, and the FCC has to approve it.
Meanwhile, with the new rules allowing people and companies to complain about the broadband service they are getting, and authorizing the FCC to make decisions and impose restrictions on companies that are seen to be being unreasonable or are failing to upgrade their infrastructure, suddenly we have seen a flurry of new deals between ISPs and the internet's backbone providers.
The latest is an interconnection agreement between AT&T and Cogent that will see them exchange traffic. The deal, according the companies themselves, "will not only improve efficiency of traffic exchange but also create additional capacity and new interconnection locations between the networks, allowing customers to continue to experience high-quality performance and network reliability." In other words, improve crappy service.
Cogent had threatened to use the new FCC rules to make complaints about AT&T and Verizon in this respect. It signed a similar deal with Verizon a few weeks ago. And incredibly, the same has happened with Level 3 and – get this – AT&T, Verizon and Comcast. It's almost as if the new rules have forced cable companies to play fairly.
And while we are looking at not exactly above-board behavior, there comes the unusual decision by the most vocal opponent to the net neutrality rules on the commission itself – FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai – to refuse to hand over documents to the FCC's general counsel.
The US House of Representatives decided it would hold an investigation into the FCC's decision, mostly sparked by claims that Google and the White House, and the Google-White House love-in, had an unusually large impact on the rules. The House wants all relevant docs, and the FCC is gathering them.
But Pai is refusing to hand them over, saying he will give them up directly to the House Oversight Committee instead. Why? Pai implies he doesn't want the FCC to carefully edit any documents.
Meanwhile, the FCC is more than a little suspicious that it may find an unusual degree of coordination between the commissioner and Congressional Republicans. In the lead-up to the vote, it did all seem rather hand-in-glove. But the bigger problem may be that commissioners are sworn to secrecy over what the actual rules are before they are formally approved – something that Pai has rightly highlighted as ludicrous.
Pai may be right, but if it turns out that he provided the text to lawmakers beforehand, it would somewhat undermine his claimed stance to be a stickler to the rules.
In short: the US political, legal and regulatory systems are wide open to abuse to people with enough money and the will to use it. This will no doubt come as news to you all. ®