After a hard fought and long running battle for the soul of internet access in the United States, on Friday the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted to enforce net neutrality rules by reclassifying the internet as a Class II utility service. Yay!
Net neutrality is the notion that all internet traffic should be treated equally and without discrimination, and is one of the main reasons for the wild success of the internet over the last 20 years. Thanks to the big telecommunications companies and their Republican supporters, however, this principle has been under dire threat this last year, with the organization whose job it is to protect net neutrality, the FCC, appearing for most of the time to side with the telecoms companies against ordinary consumers’ interests.
However, following 3.7 million comments to the FC during the public consultation process (crashing the website twice), over 2.5 million signatures for net neutrality, 10 million emails to congress, 500,000 phone calls to the FCC and Congress, 250,000 petitions and signatures sent to President Obama for support, 100 on-the-ground protests, 101 civil rights groups giving support to Title II reclassification, over 20 million social media posts on the subject, and a personal appeal for net neutrality by President Obama, the FCC at last relented, and a month ago surprised almost everyone by announcing plans to reclassify the internet as a Title II utility, and thus save net neutrality.
Despite this, given massive opposition from the industry and a Republican controlled Congress, it was still uncertain whether the new proposals would indeed be voted through on 26 February. As it turned out, the vote was 3-2, with Democrats voting in favor, and Republicans against. Obama appointee but former industry lobbyist FCC Chairmen Tom Wheeler said,
‘The Internet is the most powerful and pervasive platform on the planet. It is simply too important to be left without rules and without a referee on the field. Think about it. The Internet has replaced the functions of the telephone and the post office. The Internet has redefined commerce, and as the outpouring from four million Americans has demonstrated, the Internet is the ultimate vehicle for free expression. The Internet is simply too important to allow broadband providers to be the ones making the rules.
This proposal has been described by one opponent as “a secret plan to regulate the Internet.” Nonsense. This is no more a plan to regulate the Internet than the First Amendment is a plan to regulate free speech. They both stand for the same concepts: openness, expression, and an absence of gate keepers telling people what they can do, where they can go, and what they can think.’
Although a massive win for ordinary internet users, broadband providers are very unhappy at the ruling. The National Cable and Telecommunications Association argued that the rules would hurt ‘everyday broadband users’ by raising costs and reducing investment, while Verizon’s senior vice-president for public policy and government affairs, Micheal Glover, said that,
‘Today’s decision by the FCC to encumber broadband Internet services with badly antiquated regulations is a radical step that presages a time of uncertainty for consumers, innovators and investors.’
It is therefore unlikely that the industry will take the ruling lying down, and the FCC is braced to fight off a series of lawsuits over the issue. Wheeler, however, has expressed confidence that the new rules will survive,
‘The DC Circuit sent the previous Open Internet Order back to us and basically said, ‘hey, you’re trying to impose common carrier-like regulation without stepping up and saying, “these are common carriers.” We have addressed that issue, that is the underlying issue, that is the sine qua non of the all the debates we’ve had so far. That gives me great confidence going forward.’
‘The FCC’s majority is required to include the Republicans’ dissents in the order and “be responsive to those dissents,” Wheeler said. The order will go on the FCC’s website after that process. The rules will go into effect 60 days after publication in the Federal Register, with one small exception. Enhancements to the transparency rule must undergo an additional review by the Office of Management and Budget because they make changes to the one part of the 2010 net neutrality order that survived court challenge.’