Verizon filed a predictable lawsuit against the FCC this week, challenging the legality of the “net neutrality” rules the commission passed by a 3-2 vote. Not so ironically, excluding the commissioner himself, the 2 commissioners voting for the rules were Democrats, and the 2 commissioners voting against the rules were Republicans.

Of course, the logic in Verizon’s case is upside-down and (in Verizon’s mind possibly) cleverly masked. Their claim is that the rules violate their corporate right to “free speech.” A corporate right to “free speech” is a concept that just 30 years ago would have been laughed-out of court, but is now a buzz-word in the country due to some ill-advised judgments by the US Supreme Court over the past 3 decades. The real issue is whether Verizon can use a federal court to override rules that are being implemented to keep the playing field level, and prevent anti-competitive actions by service providers. That’s what is actually hiding behind the “freedom of speech” rhetoric.

Free Speech is actually a right of the users of the network, not the providers. As much as I never liked Al Gore’s over-simplified promotion of the Internet as an “Information Superhighway” (I am a software engineer after all), the analogy truly applies to the net neutrality rules. Verizon, and other Internet providers, would love to be able to dictate what can and can not flow on their part of the “information superhighway” by blocking or limiting the content that flows. Not only could the highway providers charge additional monies for access to the highway for its use, they could literally turn back vehicles (i.e. data streams) they don’t want on the road.

While a Highway Administration agency has the right to do that on physical highways, for vehicles violating safety, it does not have the right to make an arbitrary decision to deny access to the road for any vehicle it doesn’t like or doesn’t have a business arrangement with. Imagine a highway where someone attempts to come on the road in a Ford Explorer, but is told they can not do it unless they use the Chevrolet that the Highway administration approves of. That’s anti-competitive, is a clear form of racketeering, and is exactly what can happen when the access to the road is not guaranteed for any vehicle that meets only the basic safety guidelines.

But Verizon’s staff is trying to be clever, and knows that the only chance they have to foist this off on the public is to use that favorite catch phrase “Freedom of Speech” in promoting the lawsuit. Utilities, which includes telecommunication companies, are heavily regulated in every country. Any monopolization leads not only to unfair business practices by the utility owner, but can actually endanger economic health and national security. The United States has, multiple times, stepped into the transportation industries to end strikes that would have stopped the movement of people and goods. Truman did it with the railroad strikes in the 1950’s, and Reagan did it with the air traffic controllers in 1981. The purpose for forcefully ending these strikes: one group was attempting to use it’s power base to disrupt economic and military logistics on a massive scale. And that can not be tolerated: free markets must be free, the military has to be able to do its job, and freedom of movement and exchange is the core of a modern free society. Information is no exception.

In an earlier post, I pointed out the conflict of private and public interests when it comes to how Google chooses to rank search results from forums on the Internet. This is a similar conflict: the telecommunications companies are not nationalized, so they maintain a degree of private ownership. Nonetheless, without heavy protection of the rights of traffic traveling over the telecommunications networks, Verizon’s so-called “Freedom of speech” would be protected at the expense of everyone else’s freedom of speech. And like it or not Verizon, you are a utility subject to heavy regulation for good reasons.

And kudos to the FCC for pushing a proactive policy like this, rather than allowing a situation to develop over time, that would take heavy-handed action to rectify when the balance of power gets out of control.

About the lawsuit: click here.

For more information about the specifics of the net neutrality rules, see this article.

For more information on the latest Supreme Court decision affecting corporate “free speech”, see the following article here.

For information on the 1950 Railroad Strike, see this article.