The New FCC Rules On Net Neutrality
“The principle that all Internet content should be treated equally as it flows through cables and pipes to consumers looks all but dead,” wrote Edward Wyatt of the New York Times last week in response to the Federal Communication Commission’s (FCC) new proposed Internet rules. In a story originally broke by the Wall Street Journal, these new rules would make it so that big telecommunication companies such as Comcast, Verizon, and AT&T could charge providers of Internet content, everyone from Google down to the home blogger, for special, faster lanes to reach users. Web users trying to go those sites that haven’t pay the fee could experience much slower, much less reliable delivery.
This type of set-up would be major blow to the concept of network neutrality. Network neutrality, in the words of open Internet attorney Marvin Ammori, is the idea that telecommunication companies,
“[must be] neutral and users don’t need anyone’s permission to invent, create, communicate, broadcast, or share online. The neutral and level playing field provided by permissionless innovation has empowered all of us with the freedom to express ourselves and innovate online without having to seek the permission of a remote telecom executive.”
Sounds nice, right? Well, unfortunately, network neutrality has had a rocky last couple of months. First a federal appeals court struck down the previous FCC rules which had established network neutrality as the norm, saying that under the Internet’s current designation as an Information Service – not a vital utility – the FCC couldn’t force telecoms to be neutral (though the court did say that the FCC could re-designate the Internet as a “Common Carrier,” which would allow it to regulate Internet providers more closely).
Then in February there was the announcement of the Comcast – Time Warner Cable merger, which would consolidate almost 40% of U.S. Internet users into the hands of a single company. With such a massive share of the market, monopolistic tendencies such as increased fees and neglect of necessary infrastructure upgrades would likely occur, amounting to even further deteriorations in service than a lot of users already experience.
And so for advocates of an open Internet looking for strong action by the FCC to counter the growing power of big telecoms, these new rules come as a shocking about-face. Up until recently, regulators had fought against this type of pay-for-fast-lane arrangement, with the logical fear that such a toll would give big companies who could afford to pay an unfair edge in reaching consumers. This was the point of the 2010 Open Internet Order. And President Obama for years has insisted that he supports network neutrality. What gives?
Open Internet advocates immediately took to arms. Todd O’Boyle, program director of Common Causes’s Media and Democracy Reform Initiative responded saying, “If it goes forward, this capitulation will represent Washington at its worst.” Public Knowledge’s Michael Weinberg similarly denounced the new rules. Senator Bernie Sanders has come out against them, and several open Internet advocates, including Marvin Ammori, recently hosted a Reddit forum on how network neutrality can be saved.
Meanwhile the FCC chairman, Tom Wheeler, defiantly rejected the notion that this new set up is “gutting the open Internet rule.” Rather, in a blog response to the uproar, he maintained that “behavior that harms consumers or competition will not be permitted.” Furthermore, the FCC would only allow those arrangements that were “commercially reasonable.”
Let’s think about this for a minute: by charging companies to be able to reliably reach Internet users, this increased cost will likely be passed along to the consumer. Telecoms: 1, consumers/competition: 0. And for those companies that don’t pay the extra fee, it’s anyone’s guess how well their web service will work. Telecoms: 2, consumers/competition 0.
And, what about the fact that you, the consumer, are paying telecoms for Internet access? Shouldn’t you be able to surf around and use the legal Internet pretty much however you want? Not necessarily if these new rules are approved.
Needless to say, the FCC has received so much blowback since the announcement, that they set up an email box far ahead of schedule where people can send comments about the new rules – firstname.lastname@example.org. Good. The new rules truly constitute the biggest threat against network neutrality in years, and anyone who cares about the Internet as we know it should be deeply concerned with these developments.
The official version new rules will be released to the public on May 15th, and they are likely to be put for a full FCC vote by the end of the year. So pick up that phone, contact your representative, flood that FCC email account with messages, vote on this Civinomics initiative, do whatever you can to make clear that the Internet needs to remain an open and neutral playing ground and that these new rules should be rejected.