Net Neutrality Part 1: The Battle for an Open Internet

Net-neutrality advocates want Federal Communications Commission to reclassify the Internet as a telecommunications service so it can impose common telecommunications-carrier rules that would guarantee an open Internet for consumers. Internet service providers argue that such regulations would prevent them from investing in network upgrades.

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Federal Communications Commission proposed rules in May 2014 that the agency says would “protect and promote” an open Internet. The proposal is controversial, to say the least.

Advocates of so-called net neutrality, which is the principle that Internet service providers (ISPs) should treat all Internet content equally, say FCC’s proposed rules aren’t strong enough. They also believe that the rules would allow ISPs to charge Internet content providers for priority access (read: faster Internet speeds) to reach consumers. In other words, the content would flow faster and buffer less for the paying companies than would the content of companies, such as small providers or startup enterprises, that are unable or unwilling to pay. Advocates want FCC to reclassify the Internet as a telecommunications service to impose common telecommunications-carrier rules that would guarantee net neutrality.

Jon M. Peha, who is a professor of public policy at Carnegie Mellon University and the former chief technologist at FCC, says a good net-neutrality policy would maintain consumer choice in content, ISPs and price. It also would foster an incentive to create new content providers.

ISPs say that if they receive more regulations, then they would have less money to invest in network upgrades. Large content providers, such as Amazon and Google, want some guarantee that their content won’t be blocked or slowed by ISPs.

FCC received at least 1.1 million comments at press time on the proposed rules, and we expect it to receive at least 300,000 more at fcc.gov/comments before Sept. 15, 2014, which is the agency’s deadline for public replies to existing comments. The comment period will be followed by public round-table discussions (Sept. 16, Sept. 19, Oct. 2 and Oct. 7, 2014) in Washington that will be streamed live at fcc.gov/live.

The regulatory agency hopes to decide by the end of 2014 whether to adopt its proposed rules. However, experts tell us that FCC likely won’t reach a decision until early 2015 and that its proposal will be bogged down in legal proceedings until at least 2016.

FCC’s proposed rules have three key components:

* All ISPs must disclose (on the ISP’s website and at the point of sale of the ISP’s services) all relevant policies that govern their network;

* No legal content may be blocked; and

* ISPs may not act in a commercially unreasonable manner to harm the principles of net neutrality, including favoring the traffic from an affiliated entity.

That last component concerns consumer advocates, who argue that the term “commercially unreasonable” is vague and leaves the door open for ISPs to prioritize service and create Internet fast lanes for high-paying content providers.

All experts agree that if Internet content providers pay more for priority access, then consumers will pay more for that content. In other words, pricing could be tiered for Internet service (as it is for cable-TV service). That is, you might have to pay $5–$10 for access to high-bandwidth content, such as Netflix’s.

“It shouldn’t be a different Internet depending on what Internet service provider you use or what deal it wants to cut,” says Michael Beckerman, who is the president and CEO of Internet Association, which is a trade group for Internet content providers. “It’s up to consumers to say which websites and services are successful and which are not.”

LEGAL CONTROL. In 2002, FCC classified Internet service as an information service under Title I of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. Information services largely are exempt from regulation. Therefore, in January 2014, U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for District of Columbia, in a lawsuit that Verizon filed, ruled that FCC’s 2010 Open Internet Order, which establishes rules that encourage net neutrality, exceeded the scope of FCC’s authority.

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