Last week the Federal Communications Commission, in a 3-2 ruling, voted to propose new rules governing the controversial issue of net neutrality. These proposed rules could have far-reaching implications on how Internet content is delivered and how much consumers pay to have it delivered. The proposed rules have been hailed by some as a reasonable attempt by the FCC to preserve an “open” Internet and prevent discrimination of content. But, on the other hand, consumer activists have decried the new rules as hurting consumers and stifling Internet innovation. The proposed rules are a response by the FCC to a January decision by the D.C. Circuit Court striking down the FCC’s 2011 attempt to prevent service providers from discriminating against certain content.
Net neutrality is the principle that Internet service providers and governments should treat all data on the Internet equally, not discriminating or charging differently by user, content, site, platform, or mode of communication. Proponents often see net neutrality as an important component of an open Internet, where policies such as equal treatment of data and open web standards allow those on the Internet to easily communicate and conduct business without interference from a third party.
Prior to last week’s vote, the FCC had failed on two occasions to enact rules allowing an open Internet—both attempts struck down by courts as outside the FCC’s authority. Under the latest proposed rules, Internet providers would be able to charge other companies for priority, high-speed access to their users. The FCC claims that these rules follow the blueprint established by the D.C. Court in its January decision. Critics maintain that the new rules would, for the first time, explicitly permit Internet service providers, like Comcast and Verizon, to create online fast lanes for the highest corporate bidders. So, Netflix might be asked to sign a deal with AT&T in order to make sure its streams don’t lag for U-Verse customers. Then Netflix might pass those extra costs on to the consumers. Still, others argue that startups would be at a distinct disadvantage compared with giants such as Facebook, Netflix, and Amazon that could afford to pay for better access to consumers. On the other hand, however, broadband providers argue that if a company like Netflix is sending vast amounts of traffic over a provider’s network, the company should have to pay for the bandwidth it uses. The providers argue that it’s not fair to the service provider that such companies can push as much as they want over the pipes and leave the broadband providers to figure out how to handle it.
The FCC is attempting to find a middle ground amongst these divergent views—one that allows Internet providers some leeway to discriminate among types of traffic while still making it impossible for companies to block content.
Last week’s FCC actions moves the proposed rules into a formal, public comment period. After the 120-day period ends, the FCC will revise the proposal and vote on a final set of rules. Those rules will almost certainly face legal challenge. The results of that challenge will likely shape the future of the Internet.
— Junaid Odubeko