The Internet was created as an “open” or “neutral” platform, and net neutrality is the principle that ensures that Internet providers can’t interfere with a user’s ability to access any content on the Web, whether it’s a community blog, a YouTube video, or a major news site. It’s essentially the First Amendment of the Internet.
In late December, the Federal Communications Commission enacted new rules on net neutrality—rules that are supposed to protect Internet users from discrimination and to prevent Internet providers like AT&T, Comcast, and Verizon from acting as gatekeepers on the Web.
But the FCC missed the mark, and its rules not only fail to protect Internet users, but bolster the big phone and cable companies’ ability to carve up the Internet among themselves. As Net Neutrality champion Senator Al Franken said, the rules are “simply inadequate to protect consumers or preserve the free and open Internet.”
During the presidential campaign, Barack Obama came out strongly in favor of net neutrality, saying he would “take a back seat to no one” on the issue. But in the end, Obama's FCC chairman, Julius Genachowski, failed to deliver on the president’s promise, instead issuing ambiguous rules riddled with loopholes that corporate lobbyists will easily undermine.
Over the past several years, the phone and cable companies have flooded Washington with millions of dollars and hundreds of lobbyists to buy support in Congress and put pressure on the FCC. Public interest groups and a few lawmakers have tried to fight back, and more than two million people have urged the FCC to adopt strong net neutrality rules, but Chairman Genachowski ultimately caved to industry demands and turned a deaf ear to the public.
What Went Wrong: Real vs. Fake Net Neutrality
At its core, real net neutrality is a clear rule of non-discrimination that governs all Internet providers. It means that your provider can’t slow down your service in order to speed up someone else’s. It means that your provider can’t exploit legal loopholes to slow down your access to Netflix while speeding up Hulu because it happens to own Hulu. It means that there’s one Internet, whether you access it from your home computer or your mobile phone.
But the rules that the FCC passed in December are vague and weak. The limited protections that were placed on wired connections, the kind you access through your home computer, leave the door open for the phone and cable companies to develop fast and slow lanes on the Web and to favor their own content or applications.
Worse, the rules also explicitly allow wireless carriers—mobile phone companies like AT&T and Verizon—to block applications for any reason and to degrade and de-prioritize websites you access using your cell phone or a device like an iPad. That means these companies could block something like the music service Pandora, while offering unlimited access to its own preferred applications, like VCast.
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We’re already seeing what a world without real Net Neutrality will look like. Just weeks after the FCC’s vote, MetroPCS, the nation’s fifth-largest wireless carrier, announced new plans that would block popular applications like Skype and Netflix while favoring YouTube. This is particularly egregious because MetroPCS serves a lower-income audience that is increasingly moving toward the mobile Web as their only way to get online.
Some companies are already marketing “deep packet inspection” technology that would allow carriers to nickel-and-dime you by charging you every time you visit Facebook or try to stream a Vimeo video. If MetroPCS gets away with its scheme—which appears to violate even the FCC’s weak rules—you can bet that AT&T and Verizon will waste no time in unveiling their own plans, which would mean higher bills and fewer choices on the mobile Web.
Lastly, the FCC’s short-sighted action failed to contend with a series of drastic deregulatory decisions made during the Bush administration that severely hamstrung the FCC’s ability to oversee the phone and cable companies. By failing to restore the agency’s authority over broadband, the FCC risks seeing even these rules tossed out in court.
The FCC rules were designed to appease the phone and cable companies—but even that didn’t work. Verizon has already filed suit against the agency, showing that these gatekeepers will settle for nothing less than total deregulation and a toothless FCC.
Undoing the Damage
The FCC’s new rules are certainly a setback in the quest to protect the Web as an open platform and an integral piece of our communications infrastructure and our democracy. In the absence of clear FCC authority and oversight of the Internet and a strong Net Neutrality framework that protects your right to go wherever you want, whenever you want online, AT&T, Comcast, and Verizon are free to interfere with your Internet experience.
The FCC still has the opportunity to put in place a solid framework that would put the public interest above the profit motive of the phone and cable companies that it is supposed to regulate. And the FCC should take immediate steps to close the loopholes it created, to strengthen its rules, and to include wireless protections. The fight is far from over. We can work to change the rules, demand better oversight and consumer protections and make sure that the big companies can’t pad their bottom lines on the backs of their customers.
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