Net neutrality is the idea that all internet traffic is treated equally by Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and governments, ‘not discriminating or charging differentially by user, content, site, platform, application, type of attached equipment, and modes of communication.’ (Wikipedia)
It is a cornerstone of innovation and free expression on the internet, but was dealt a potentially fatal blow in January last year when the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled in favor of leading US telecoms giant Verizon, who argued that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), whose job it is to enforce net neutrality, did not have authority over broadband providers.
This paved the way for ISPs to prioritize some internet traffic over others – a situation that was highlighted when Verizon started to throttle Netflix traffic. Most observers initially expected the FCC to intervene and reclassify the internet as a ‘common-carrier’ utility under Title II of the Communications Act, which would bring it back under the FCC’s control.
For over a year, however, the FCC has dithered. Headed by Obama appointee but former lobbyist for the telecommunications industry, Tom Wheeler, the FCC looked dangerously close to siding with the ISPs against the consumers whose job it is to protect.
Massive popular support for net neutrality, which included an unprecedented response to a public consultation period (over 3.7 million comments, which caused the website to crash at one point), plus President Obama eventually throwing in his support for net neutrality, appears to have caused a back-peddling by the FCC, who today announced new proposals to reclassify the internet as a Class II utility.
Today’s announcement is undoubtedly great news for internet freedom activists and consumers alike, although as Ars Technica observes, describing the proposals outlined in a four page summary as ‘utility-style regulations’ is somewhat misleading, as,
‘There will be no rate regulation, Internet service providers (ISPs) won’t have to file tariffs, and there’s no unbundling requirement that would force ISPs to lease network access to competitors.’
- ‘No blocking – broadband providers may not block access to legal content, applications, services, or non-harmful devices.
- No throttling – broadband providers may not impair or degrade lawful Internet traffic on the
basis of content, applications, services, or non-harmful devices.
- No paid prioritization – broadband providers may not favor some lawful Internet traffic over
other lawful traffic in exchange for consideration – in other words, no “fast lanes.” This rule also bans ISPs from prioritizing content and services of their affiliate’
- No tariffs or fees – ISPs will not be burdened with having to pay the myriad of fees and tariffs that normally apply to Class II utilities.
Although the proposals do not ban ISPs charging for direct network connections, they do give the FCC authority to hear complaints over unfairness, and to act upon them.
The less good
- No price controls – the FCC will have no say how ISPs set prices
- No ‘last mile unbundling’ – ISPs will not be forced to share their infrastructure with the competition, which means that no new broadband options will become available in a given area.
On both these last points the FCC has the power to demand otherwise, but has instead decided to offer the industry olive branches.
Despite this, however, the industry is not happy, and it very possible that even if the proposals are passed as is (the final vote is scheduled for 26 February), Republican controlled congress may pass (or threaten to pass) legislation undoing the action.
This is nevertheless a very good day for new neutrality (and by extension all internet users). If you wish to contact the FCC to show your support (or otherwise!) for the new proposals you can do so here, and if you want to lobby your congressional representative then you might be interested in this article. We also encourage readers to consider joining Fight for the Future’s campaign to protect net neutrality.