And just like Ned Stark here, the future doesn’t look all that good for Net Neutrality…
(You a little lost with the current big news story? Felling a like this guy? Well relax, we’re here to help. This is 10-Point Expert, a series of articles that examine issues which are currently affecting the political landscape in 10 simple to understand points. For this installment we look at the FCC’s ruling in creating “fast lanes” for the Internet and how that could affect Net Neutrality.)
Net Neutrality is a pretty simple idea in that all Internet traffic should be treated equally. That means your ISP provider – ie the company that supplies your Internet connection to you like Time-Warner Cable or Sprint – shouldn’t block or downgrade access to a certain websites and services or promote others through better access. So whether you are looking up cancer research on a college database, donating to charities on JustGive, or more importantly watching two college girls go at it on PornHub, your Internet provider should not discriminate access based on what you’re doing online.
Proponents of Net Neutrality say it’s through these ideals that have made the Internet into the bastion of innovation that it has been in the last ten years. By keeping the barriers of entry low, guys like Mark Zuckerberg didn’t have to get permission from his Internet provider to create Facebook. He just created it and put it up online. Without Net Neutrality, advocates argue ventures like Google, Facebook, Amazon, Skype, and numerous others wouldn’t have been viable. More importantly, it would have denied the world The Social Network and in turn would have denied us this. And really, wouldn’t that have been the bigger tragedy here?
The FCC (Federal Communications Commission) for years has wrestled with how to handle regulation of the Internet. Some within the FCC have even questioned whether Net Neutrality is an idea worth protecting. Mostly because this is probably what some in the agency think the Internet actually is. For the most part though, the FCC has upheld the idea of Net Neutrality.
The argument against Net Neutrality is an interesting one. Opponents insist that Net Neutrality discourages investment in network infrastructures. While many telecommunication companies have spent billions of dollars laying out cable infrastructure across the US, many argue that newer infrastructure technologies – like Google’s fiber optic networks – are stunted by the massive investment and slow return that current Net Neutrality regulations create. In other words, if Net Neutrality makes networks less profitable, then newer networks will be created slower than they could be.
Julius Genachowski, former chair of the FCC, created something called the Open Internet Order back in 2010. It basically was designed to protect Net Neutrality by making Internet providers be more transparent with their policies and prohibited them from blocking content online.
Verizon ended up challenging the FCC’s Open Internet Order arguing that the agency had overstepped its bounds with its new rules. After a three year court battle, the DC Appeals Court in early 2014 sided with Verizon and struck down the set regulations. The court ruled that based on the laws that Congress had set by creating the 1996 Telecommunications Act, the FCC had overstepped its authority by regulating “information services”, which by law they had no right to regulate. (Writer’s Note: To be honest the whole court case is a bit more complicated than that, so if you want to know more about it, go here.)
After the courts had limited the FCC’s regulatory options with their ruling, current FCC head Tom Wheeler wanted to set regulations that could still protect Net Neutrality. Yet he also wanted to reach a middle ground between ISP providers and Net Neutrality proponents, thus creating the concept of “fast lanes”.
Originally reported by the Wall Street Journal, Wheeler’s new proposed plan is to still prohibit Internet providers from blocking or discriminating against websites or online services. But at the same time, Wheeler proposed that Internet providers would be allowed to create special “fast lanes” for specific circumstances. The concept of “fast lanes” is based on the idea that if companies like Netflix wanted to pay Internet providers extra to ensure that their content received enough bandwidth, they could do so.
As you may have guessed, the concept of “fast lanes” didn’t go over too well with Net Neutrality advocates. They had hoped that Wheeler would just reclassify broadband from an “information service” to a “telecommunication service” where FCC would then have the authority impose regulations. Instead with the concept of “fast lanes” introduced, groups like Public Knowledge – a group that promotes openness of the Internet – felt the ideals of an open Internet were being ignored. They stated that, “[fast lanes] allows ISPs to impose a new price of entry for innovation on the Internet.” It is possible that the FCC or Congress could change the rules in the future, but as they stand right now, the strong network neutrality regulations that have been championed in the past look to be dead.
While Net Neutrality groups aren’t happy, Wheeler does insist that the new proposed FCC rules are still in the spirit of an “open Internet”. While it’s possible anything could happen, with Wheeler being one of three Democrats on a five member FCC commissioner board, it’s hard to see the proposal not getting passed.