Net neutrality alive and well in the United States, but doubts persist

DANIEL HEUSER

REUTERS/Gary Cameron

REUTERS/Gary Cameron

President Obama, tech companies, hail decision as “victory for consumers”

 

Net neutrality is safe in the United States, at least for now. On Feb. 26, the Federal Communications Commission of the United States voted in a 3-2 decisions to adopt a new proposal drafted by the commission’s chairman, former cable lobbyist Tom Wheeler, to replace the previous rules regarding net neutrality that were tossed out by the U.S. Court of Appeals in early 2013.

Net neutrality, or open internet, is the principle that internet service providers should give all consumers equal access to all content deemed legal on an equal basis, without favouring or blocking particular sources.

Essentially, it means that if company “x” provides internet access with a speed of “y” for “z” amount of money then it must provide that exact same service for each customer to access any and all legal websites or applications, regardless of content or location.

Joining a host of concerned consumers worried about the implications of service providers being able to charge consumers extra for access to so-called “fast lanes” or certain content, heavyweight tech companies including Netflix, Google and Facebook also threw their support behind the FCC’s proposed new regulations.

Netflix in particular had already undergone an unsavoury experience with regards to content access when it found in late 2013 that its connection speed to consumers currently being serviced by U.S. cable giant Comcast were being throttled, obstructing the quality of video streaming service for whih customers were paying for. Netflix and Comcast eventually ironed out the issues, but only after Netflix agreed to pay Comcast a substantial fee for more direct access to the ISPs servers.

The new rules, which will allow the FCC to regulate the internet under Title II of the Communications Act, the same act that once regulated telephone lines as public utilities, will essentially prohibit ISPs from giving preferential treatment to particular content producers. ISPs, which were previously considered “information services” with very little federal oversight, will now be classified as a utility regulated by the FCC.

The strict new regulations will ban the blocking of high-bandwidth applications, the throttling of internet speeds and the creation of “fast lanes” for customers who would pay a premium for the service.

An unprecedented inclusion in the new rules, however, is that the regulations will apply not only to traditional ISPs like Comcast or Time-Warner but also to mobile providers like Verizon and AT&T. In a letter to supporters, President Obama, who came out in favour of the proposal last year, praised the decision and thanked the more than 4 million people who wrote in to the FCC in support of the new rules.

President Obama lauded the FCC ruling, remarking that “today’s FCC decision will protect innovation and create a level playing field for the next generation of entrepreneurs”.

The president’s involvement in the process, however, has drawn concern from Republican lawmakers that the administration may have overstepped its bounds on the issue.

Republican FCC commissioner Michael O’Reilly expressed his disappointment at what he felt was the Obama administration “overtaking the Commission’s rulemaking process”.

Major tech corporations also weighed in on the decision, with a statement from Netflix hailing the ruling, remarking that, “the FCC settled it: consumers win”. The decision, however, may only serve to bring a brief respite in the debate over the issue.

Service providers have already begun threatening lawsuits against the FCC and the government with AT&T leading the pack, and the debate over the new regulations is likely far from over.

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