When Comcast won its appeal against the FCC last week, it became one of the great losing victories of all time. It was like winning a bet that if you were smacked in the head with a tire iron, you wouldn't be unconscious for more than an hour.
The U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that the FCC didn't have authority to regulate broadband providers. While Comcast was uncorking the bubbly, no doubt its weary fellow-providers were all wishing the company hadn't brought suit in the first place.
You see, the initial FCC ruling was about a heavy-handed, but fairly minor issue -- that Comcast had acted improperly in impeding access to BitTorrent, a file-sharing service. But Comcast's challenge opened the door to a far larger matter: "net neutrality."
(The term "net neutrality" is one of the lamest ever devised in modern linguistics. The issue isn't about neutrality, but equal access to the Internet for everyone. Net Freedom is more proper.)
The problem Comcast created is that the only reason the FCC didn't have the right is because the FCC itself categorized broadband providers as a low-end service. As such, providers have been given virtually a free hand to operate. But now, to correct this, the FCC and Congress merely have to go, "Whoops! What were we thinking?? Okay, let's fix our mistake" and just re-label broadband providers as a high-end service. Like the near-public utility they actually are.
But it's even far worse for Comcast, because they showed why proponents of Net Freedom have a case.
Net Freedom tends to seem a confusing issue: something that calls for regulation to bring about openness.
It's much simpler, though. Think of it like having stops signs at a busy intersection to avoid daily pile-ups. Or think of Wall Street without regulations. Financial collapse was the result. When safeguards were built in, the American economy was the strongest in the world.
Comcast and its competitors -- multinational corporations like Time-Warner, AT&T and Verizon -- don't want to be regulated. Gee, go figure.
This is why there has been so much attention to Comcast's attempt to buy NBC. It would create one giant company -- with a monopoly in its local service areas -- that would not only provide the distribution of content, but also determine what that content will be.
Why should you care?
Look at it this way: say you wanted to go shopping. But all the stores in town are now Sears. Not only would they control the prices without competition, but all the products available are only the one that Sears stocks. And you can't go online to buy, because Sears is your service provider, too.
If one company controls the distribution and content, be prepared to pay higher prices. Be prepared to pay for certain premium websites you now get for free. Be prepared to have slower speeds on smaller, independent websites because they can't afford to pay the new access fees. Be prepared to have access blocked to some websites.
If Comcast owns NBC, expect to find all 11 NBC-owned networks in the prime cable tier, and competitors buried elsewhere, perhaps in bundled packages that cost extra.
Now, yes, Comcast and all the multinational broadband providers have said that they give you their solemn word that they'll play nice. Then again, this all came about because Comcast obstructed access to BitTorrent -- so they've already broken their word.
Or to put it in a simpler perspective: how do you like your cable company?
To be fair, there are valid issues against Net Freedom. At the heart is copyright protection. Shocking as it may seem, information isn't actually free. Copyright protections exist so that people can make a living creating all that content and distributing it. Without copyright protection, that content will disappear. Poof.
So, the argument against Net Freedom is that is allows the multinational corporations to offer copyright protection of content against thievery.
And that would be swell. If it wasn't for the track record of the multinational corporations protecting the henhouse.
These corporations have made the case that the more they are allowed to nobly protect content, the more profits they'll be able to pass along to the creators of that content. It sounds so glowingly wonderful. Doesn't it?!
Except that, well, these are the same corporations who have never seemingly made a profit on anything. No TV series in history amazingly has ever made a profit. Okay, except The Rockford Files. But that's only because James Garner had to sue.
The most successful movies ever made seem to never return a net profit. Amazingly. Indeed, the major media companies always plead that they're losing money, decade after decade. It's remarkable that they stay in business.
These are among the same multinational corporations who two years ago insisted they needed three years to study the newfangled Internet to see if there was a profit in it.
Sometimes, gall is so shameless it's turned into an art form.
I strongly believe in copyright protection. And I would love to trust Comcast, Time-Warner, AT&T, Verizon and Cox to act fairly with its content providers and customers. I wanted to trust Adelphia and WorldCom, too. But I learned long ago not to argue with history, reality, fraud and monopoly.
The thing is, Net Freedom does provide for existing laws to address copyright protection. What it requires, though, is enforcement.
Yet still, to be fair, there are those who look at the collapsed music industry and see it as a warning sign about what happens when you have such freedom, without control. And that's the argument the international corporations are making against Net Freedom.
The problem is that it's not true.
That's not what happened to the music industry.
The music industry didn't collapse because of unfettered freedom. It collapsed largely because of short-sightedness and greed by the record companies.
When music CDs were costing $18, record companies did everything to sustain those prices, even though the actual cost of a CD was probably a couple bucks.
When DAT tapes were developed as a new, high-quality way for people to record at home, the record companies killed DATs.
The overly-protective, heavy-handed actions of record companies helped create the market for song-sharing. When companies could have co-opted new technology, they closed their eyes to it. And so that audience looked for alternatives, and discovered they could share single songs all on their own. Create their own mixed albums. Find their own new artists. And the record companies were left in the dust.
The proof? When Apple showed a blueprint for how to make money from music online, the music industry actually began to make a recovery.
The music industry didn't fall apart because of rampant Net Freedom. It fell apart mostly for the exact same, failed-reasons the critics of Net Freedom are trying to repeat: corporations trying to control what is out of their control and protect their dead past, rather than understanding the future, embracing it, and using it advantageously to encompass everyone's needs: their own, the content creators and the public.
Follow Robert J. Elisberg on Twitter: www.twitter.com/RobertElisberg