Net Neutrality Is Society’s Net Gain

Just last week, the Federal Appeals Court voted 2-1 to uphold the FCC’s strict new net neutrality rules in the face of a challenge from several internet service providers (ISPs) unhappy with the changes proposed.

The new FCC policy , a 183-page behemoth published in February 2015, changes the classification of ISPs to that of a public utility such as telephone services.  It also sets forth five rules that ISPs must abide by:

  1. ISPs “may not block access to legal content, applications, services, or nonharmful devices.” In other words, ISPs can’t block access of any legal user to any legal website.
  2. ISPs can’t throttle, or slow down, the delivery of any legal internet traffic.
  3. ISPs can’t make a company pay to give its data packets priority delivery or prioritize the delivery of data from their own services.
  4. ISPs can’t adopt practices which would harm consumers or people providing services on the internet.
  5. ISPs must offer transparent specifics on how they run their broadband networks.

The policy also provides for an exception for reasonable management of a broadband network. ISPs are allowed to prioritize data so as to keep things running smoothly, but cannot use this for their own commercial advantage.

Getting to this point has been a hotly contested battle. The FCC initially proposed much weaker regulations.  However, the combination of a call from President Obama for stronger rules, 4 million comments filed with the FCC, and protesters who went so far as to sit in the FCC Chairman’s driveway and demand a stronger policy, all came together to convince the FCC to pass the current policy.

Taken together, these rules are a new way of enforcing an old concept, net neutrality. The FCC has not had means of enforcing such rules until this most recent policy was published.

What is Net Neutrality?

Net neutrality is the concept that internet providers should treat all data on the internet equally—regardless of source.  All information passing through broadband networks and backbone networks should be given equal priority to the extent possible without effecting function.

For instance, text on a website can have data packets arrive in any order while video and audio must arrive in a specific order and in a timely fashion to function—net neutrality doesn’t require companies to ignore the concerns of functionality. Sorry About That

What net neutrality does is prevent blocking of content, throttling content (intentionally slowing down some content or speeds up others), and paid prioritization where some services are stuck in a “slow lane” because they do not pay a special fee. Essentially, it keeps ISPs in the business of charging users for internet connection as opposed to charging edge providers for users while the people buying internet service from them suffer.

The phrase net neutrality was first introduced in 2003 by law professor Tim Wu. Since it has had a name, it has been the subject of hot debate in the courts of both law and public opinion.

The Federal Appeals Court Ruling

The most recent rules, upheld by the Federal Appeals Court, treat both fixed and mobile ISPs as telecommunication services. This was a large part of why the Appeals Court finally upheld the FCC’s policy.  The court felt that the internet was so integral to day-to-day society that the change in classification was proper. The court’s dissenting judge, Judge Stephen Williams, argued that even though the FCC could legally reclassify broadband companies as telecommunications carriers there wasn’t enough evidence presented that society’s approach to internet had changed enough to warrant the change.

ISPs such as AT&T have seen a thorough trouncing in this case. The court accepted the rules put forth by the FCC exactly as written and then spent the remainder or their 115-page majority opinion rejecting every argument (and there were a lot of them—calling the rule overreaching and arbitrary) raised against the new net neutrality rules by both AT&T, parties who actively sought to join the case to throw more firepower at the issue, and outside parties who filed briefs seeking to be heard on the issue.

While the decision is a win for net neutrality, it will almost certainly be appealed. AT&T’s counsel was quoted saying “We have always expected this issue to be decided by the Supreme Court, and we look forward to participating in that appeal,”

How Does this Decision Effect the Average Consumer?

The FCC’s policy ensures you will not have to pay for internet that essentially only allows access to part of the internet. There is even a potential that, without these policies, consumers would end up buying internet website bundles in the same way you buy channels on cable TV—a practice that already exists in some African countries without net neutrality provisions.

Opponents of net neutrality argue that many consumers only visit a few websites, and would be happy to pay less for access to just these sites. This is the idea behind the bundled deals offered in countries such as Ghana—providing access to just a very few websites such as Facebook.  They also argue that it prevents people who wish to pay more from purchasing “fast lane” connections.  They say that some websites, especially popular streaming websites, take much more bandwidth than the average website and are thus taking advantage of ISPs.  Cable companies also bemoan the possibility of chilled investment in their networks.

What net neutrality actually does is prevent ISPs from limiting access to the internet, providing preferential treatment to internet services they provide or services that are willing to be strong-armed through bandwidth throttling into giving them a cut of their profits (as Netflix was forced to do not so long ago).  You already pay for a certain amount of bandwidth and this decision will not change that.  It just means that you will have the same access to the entirety of the internet—the premise that has allowed the internet to grow from its inception as a tiny communication network used by universities and the government into a global tool of free information and change.

A world without net neutrality certainly would benefit ISPs—allowing them to make money by slicing up the internet into packages and by creating artificial scarcity of broadband through “fast lane” internet sold to edge providers like Netflix.  In order to create a “fast lane,” providers would artificially place all other data in the slow lane.  Net neutrality prevents this, and in doing so maintains the social benefit of a free internet.  What’s more, it prevents ISPs from choking small business—unable to afford artificial premiums—out of the market.

Frankly, net neutrality is not about making huge changes to the internet—it’s about stopping them. Without the low barrier to entry provided by the internet, many of today’s biggest companies, such as Google, could never have existed.  The ruling of the Federal Appeals Court is a victory for both the consumer, and for innovation.

This ruling isn’t final; we can expect these rules to be before the Supreme Court before we’ll know whether they’re here to stay. However, this is the first step towards keeping the internet in the form we’ve all come to know and love.

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