By Joshua Ostrer
The future of net neutrality is in jeopardy yet again. As the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) moves to set up new rules for the governance of the Internet, companies and individuals are speaking up in the name of maintaining net neutrality.
What is net neutrality? Net neutrality is the concept that all data transfer on the internet will be treated equally. The concept mainly comes into play regarding Internet service providers (ISPs) and governments, stipulating that they refrain from interfering with the free transfer of ideas.
For governments, this means not restricting Internet speech based on governmental indecency standards. For ISPs, net neutrality means that the provider cannot discriminate on what content is conveyed using its connection.
Why would the death of net neutrality be bad? An unregulated ISP could potentially make Internet ‘fast lanes’ and ‘slow lanes.’ Basically, ISPs could charge more for content providers or consumers to access services they already pay for.
Giving ISPs the ability to regulate what information they transfer would also allow them to categorically refuse to transfer certain information. This is something that could fundamentally alter the public’s ability to communicate freely on the Internet. Early this year, a federal appeals court struck down FCC net neutrality rules, stating that the rules that had provisions against anti-blocking and anti-discrimination on the Internet exceeded the FCC’s jurisdiction.
As a result, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler has announced that the FCC is working to develop new net neutrality rules. However, this is no easy process. The FCC is battling to find a middle ground between two very powerful economic forces.
On one side are the ISPs, like AT&T and Verizon. On the other side are content providers, like Amazon, Netflix and Facebook. But what exactly are these billion-dollar companies fighting for?
ISPs like AT&T are lobbying the FCC to avoid classifying Internet access as a telecommunications service.
Telecommunication, as defined by Merriam-Webster, is “communication at a distance (as by telephone).”
Internet traffic clearly falls under that technical definition, so why is AT&T so opposed to the proposed change?
The answer is that if Internet traffic were deemed a “telecommunications service,” ISPs would be subject to certain “common carrier” rules under Title II of the Communications Act of 1934.
This would guarantee certain privileges to the user in the same way they are guaranteed for telephone conversations, for example.
Imagine that you could be charged more per minute for a conversation if you happened to be talking about sports instead of what food you wanted to eat later. That’s what ISPs are trying to fight to do.
Who’s fighting in support of net neutrality? Some of the largest content providers in the world, and especially in the United States.
In a May 7 letter addressed to the FCC office in Washington, D.C., over 100 well-known internet companies asked the FCC to provide “support for a free and open Internet.” The companies listed included Amazon, Google, Facebook, Twitter and Netflix, amongst others.
In their letter to the FCC, the content providers asked that “the Commission’s rules should protect users and Internet companies on both fixed and mobile platforms against blocking, discrimination and paid prioritization, and should make the market for Internet services more transparent.”
The issue of net neutrality is fairly clear-cut. On one side are ISPs looking for decreased regulation, and on the other side are content providers and consumers, looking for a guarantee for a neutral Internet.
“The idea of net neutrality is not to have the government ‘regulate the Internet,’ it’s to keep the Internet open, so that we still have the innovation and investment we’ve had in the past,” said Senator Al Franken from Minnesota to TIME.
This Monday, May 12, FCC Commissioner Tom Wheeler announced changes to the FCC’s plan for new Internet rules.
An unnamed FCC source told the Wall Street Journal that the FCC’s “goal is to find the best approach to ensure the Internet remains open and prevent any practices that threaten it.”
However, many have doubts regarding how well the new rules will actually ensure net neutrality, citing the need for more concrete specifics on new FCC policy.
The fact of the matter is that net neutrality is no easy issue to settle. There are billions of dollars on the line on both sides, and a public that is becoming increasingly concerned with issues of its freedoms online.
Net neutrality is back in the spotlight. What will happen next remains to be seen.