12/15/2014 08:48 pm ET Updated Feb 14, 2015

Some Internet Activists Say Obama Didn't Go Far Enough

When Barack Obama came out publicly for the reclassification of the Internet as a public utility, his announcement indicated that the decades-long battle to maintain neutrality on the Web had entered a new high-profile stage.

From a wonky side discussion found mostly in the technology sections of major newspapers and on computer blogs, net neutrality had suddenly morphed into a national obsession, filling up late-night TV and social-media feeds with one meme after another and finally crashing the FCC's website with 4 million public comments.

The deliberations of agency chair Tom Wheeler, a former cable and wireless lobbyist appointed by a Democratic president, became a public drama, as one half-baked compromise proposal after another bit the dust in the face of public outrage.

As the battle heats up again, some Internet activists are saying net neutrality is important but isn't the only game in town. They say the intensity of the fight over net neutrality has diverted attention from other steps that can be taken to keep the Internet consumer-focused and equally accessible to all, instead of a prioritized toll road that not everyone can afford to drive on. Particularly, they point to the idea of structural separation.

So what is structural separation?

David Isenberg, a technology expert and a fellow at the Institute for Global Communications, says:

Structural separation means that providers of an Internet connection can't have a financial interest in what's carried on that connection. This ensures that when the Internet connection provider does network management, it's not motivated to discriminate in favor of one content or service provider at the expense of another. Enforcement of neutrality is easy when there's a bright line between conduit and content.

Such a policy, had it been in place, might have stopped the Comcast/NBC-Universal merger dead in its tracks, as vertical integration of content carriers and content providers would have been forbidden.

Though a consistent element in conversations abroad, the subject has been largely off the table domestically since the last time something like it occurred, the 1984 breakup of AT&T. In the ensuing period of time, voluntary structural separation occurred or is in process in Australia and New Zealand and was forcibly applied in 2007-08 in Mongolia.

Considering the obvious benefits of the 1984 antitrust action against AT&T, it is a bit of mystery why it isn't a part of today's conversation about paid prioritization on the Web. With their ownership separate from AT&T, the Baby Bells no longer had an incentive to favor AT&T over long-distance competitors. All long-distance competitors obtained access to local telecommunications services on similar, nondiscriminatory terms.

The 1984 version of paid prioritization in telecom. Stopped.

Sounds good, right?

Could something like that work on the 21st-century Internet? Can we even talk about it?

Isenberg adds:

The enemies of net neutrality describe Title 2 as "the nuclear option," but it is actually a moderate compromise. Structural separation would be better way to get net neutrality than Title 2. It would be simpler, more effective and easy to enforce. But it would mean that Internet access providers like Verizon, AT&T, Comcast and Time Warner Cable would need to spin off some major business assets. Title 2 is like medicine. Structural separation is like surgery. The disease we need to cure is Internet discrimination. If medicine won't cure it, maybe surgery will.

It's not unusual for Beltway conversations about economic policy to restrict the scope of the conversation to just a few middle-of-the-road options.

It's also not unusual for options that are on the table in countries across the world to be dismissed as lunatic socialist fringe here at home.

But if the telecoms think reclassification into Title II is "too harsh a tool" to rein in unreasonable network practices and the threat of slow lanes on the Internet for everyone without big bucks in their pockets, they may not be seeing the whole picture.