Federal Communications Commission votes to preserve net neutrality
Last week, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted 3–2 in favor of establishing new legislation to preserve network neutrality.
Net neutrality is the idea that the Internet should be equal and open to everyone. This means that your Internet Service Provider (ISP) — Comcast, Time Warner, Verizon, AT&T, among others — has no say in what type of content you can access online or how fast you can access it.
The new rules reclassify the Internet as a public utility, similar to electricity or telephone lines. This will allow the government to provide regulations to Internet providers in a similar way to how they regulate phone carriers.
Part of the regulation ensures that ISPs aren’t allowed to set up Internet “fast lanes” to provide preferential treatment to companies able to pay for it.
The new Title II rules will make sure that the Internet remains equal for everyone, regardless of if they’re a huge corporation like Facebook or Google or a single person running a blog or YouTube channel.
In September 2014, after an earlier proposal for network neutrality was shot down, the FCC opened a public forum to hear complaints from the people. The Internet banded together in a way that only the Internet can do, with massive support coming from large corporations like Google and Netflix and smaller communities like Tumblr and Reddit alike. Nearly four million comments were sent to the FCC, making this the most publicly commented issue ever voted on by the FCC by far.
President Barack Obama even made a November 2014 statement in favor of net neutrality and an open internet, directly acknowledging the comments made to the FCC and the people behind them. A YouTube video of the President’s statement on the matter has over 870,000 views.
FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler finally stepped in and made his voice heard in an editorial in WIRED magazine in early February. Wheeler proposed new, stronger rules for net neutrality, including increased transparency.
While the legislation that passed was actually a slightly stronger version of the regulation Wheeler proposed, the 3–2 vote was tight. Both Republicans on the FCC voted against the proposal, arguing during the hearing that net neutrality regulation would create a recursive situation where regulation only creates more regulation, stifling competiton.
Wheeler disagreed, countering by saying Title II regulations will do for the internet what the 1st Amendment did for free speech.
Proponents of net neutrality have been hoping to see some new, stronger legislative action from the FCC for years.
In 2010, Verizon prevented the FCC from creating new legislation that would have enacted a version of net neutrality. The FCC wasn’t strong enough in their classification of the Internet, and ended up losing the bid until this 2015 re-vote.
In fall 2014, Netflix agreed to pay ISPs including Comcast and Verizon to ensure consistent internet speeds for their customers. In the months prior, Netflix revealed that average streaming speeds from those providers had been slower for many of its users. Netflix has since been a vocal supporter of net neutrality.
Why did Verizon do this? Why did Netflix agree to pay the price, even though they claim to support net neutrality? Greg Hughes, a part-time lecturer in the School of Communication and Information who worked in the business unit at AT&T for over 25 years, says there may be a reasonable answer.
“These are entirely understandable kinds of things," Hughes said. "If you are getting paid for something, it makes sense to have some relationship to the costs of that service."
When you think about it, it is only natural that ISPs would want to get more money from anyone who pulls heavy loads of data like Netflix. But to the people using the Internet, including content providers ranging from BuzzFeed to The New York Times, it seems only fair that there’s an equal playing ground.
But according to Hughes, from the perspective of the companies who pay for the backbone of this infrastructure, it’s only natural that they would want to have more control. After all, that’s their entire business.
For ISPs like AT&T, Comcast, and Verizon, net neutrality is not an ideological decision, it’s a business one. That’s part of the reason they come out looking like the bad guys.
Hughes warned of the potential pitfalls of an open internet, concerns that were also voiced by Republican members of the FCC.
Critics of net neutrality warn that it could stifle competition amongst ISPs, holding the U.S. back in connectivity rankings globally. In 2014, traffic analytic firm Akamai ranked the United States 11th in global average internet speed –– a ranking many Americans wouldn’t be happy about. South Korea is first, followed by Japan and then Hong Kong.
At the end of the day, this new Title II regulation is a big deal for everyone who uses the Internet. Ironically enough, the most resounding part about these new rules is that in the big picture, and at least for the foreseeable future, the Internet will essentially continue to function as it does now.
Tyler Gold is a School of Communication and Information senior majoring in information technology and informatics. You can follow him on Twitter for tech updates @tylergold.