What is Net Neutrality? What did the FCC vote on today (May 15, 2014), and why is the FCC ruling important?

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auntlori's profile pic

Lori Steinbach | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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The Federal Communications Commission is the governing body for all types of communication at the federal level. The most recent subject to come before the FCC is the idea known as “net neutrality.” Just as the name implies, net neutrality means ensuring that all internet data and all internet users are treated equally, without any special considerations regarding

user, content, site, platform, application, type of attached equipment, and modes of communication.

It sounds easy and even seems fair, but the debate about this issue is hot and ongoing because nothing about government regulations is as simple as it seems.

Today the FCC voted on a bipartisan agreement of net neutrality, though the subject is now open for discussion for the next four months, at which time the FCC will meet again to conduct a final vote on this issue.

The goal of this proposal is laudable, as it is designed to protect consumers from any kind of interference by a third party through double-paying or through restricting access. As always, though, there are plenty of potential pitfalls in the agreement. While I’m certainly not a technology expert, it does seem to me that proponents of net neutrality are the ones who are playing a little fast and loose with the language of the agreement. 

For example, one sticking point in these debates is the potential for what are called “fast lanes,” which can be bought and paid for by big corporations or entities in order to restrict (in terms of payment or of what is passed through the pipeline, so to speak) what consumers can access on the internet.

The potential trouble with these regulations, I think, comes from the allowance for “paid prioritization” on these “fast lanes.” In a loose rendition of George Orwell’s statement in Animal Farm, it seems quite possible that “all people have access, but some people have more access than others.” This provision does, indeed, suggest at least the possibility for a financially elite slippery slope.

Note this comment by FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler:

"There is nothing in this rule in this proposal that authorizes fast lanes," he said.

Of course, the implication is that there is also nothing in the proposal that would prevent them. Wheeler does continue, saying:

"we ask the question, 'Should there be a ban on paid prioritization?' Talk to me after we get the input on those questions."

On the other hand, the FCC does seem to want to protect consumers from unscrupulous providers. Wheeler claims that he expects this proposal will mandate that it is

unreasonable to charge a content provider to use bandwidth a consumer has already paid for.

In all, I’m glad the debate is hot and has time to develop before anything is enacted permanently. Unrestricted access and paid prioritization do seem to be strange bedfellows.

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mwestwood's profile pic

mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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There is little to add to the thorough and insightful analysis above, other than to voice suspicions of the FCC, whom, by the way, the present Administration wants to have access to newsrooms all over the country in order to monitor these stations. 

Suspicions about today's ruling arise, also, as it seems that open internet rules set by the FCC were struck down on January 14, 2013, by a U.S. Court of Appeal in the District of Columbia Circuit because ISPs [Internet Service Providers] were not classified as "common carriers."

Earlier, a petition regarding Net Neutrality was sent to the White House because of a concern about ISPs not being classified as "common carriers." It read in part, 

We urge the President to direct the FCC to classify ISPs as "common carriers" so that the words of the FCC chairman may be fulfilled: “I am committed to maintaining our networks as engines for economic growth, test beds for innovative services and products, and channels for all forms of speech protected by the First Amendment.”

The official White House response mentions Barrack Obama's commitment when a state senator to the principle of net neutrality. It also affirms its support of Chairman Wheeler and the FCC. However, it fails to mention whether or not the ISPs will be classified as "common carriers," the main point of the petition. 

What is known now about the New Neutrality vote is that the rules "may be modified based on the reaction, and formal adoption is expected in the fall."

So, what did happen today?

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litteacher8's profile pic

litteacher8 | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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The FCC voted to put an end to net neutrality.  If you recall, the internet was invented by the scientists and the military essentially as a way to exchange information.  However, it was such a good venue for exchanging information that over time it grew into the international backbone of commerce and intelligence that it is today.  The FCC acknowledged that the internet is a place for business, and that not all business is equal.  By allowing the creation of fast lanes, the FCC is basically saying that some companies have the right to cordon off sections of the internet to give priority to some over others.  The idea of priority assumes that there can no longer be neutrality or equality. 

A good analogy is traffic.  Some cities began charging more for toll roads in times of high congestion, because there were more cars on the road then.  In other words, the internet is no longer a freeway.  There will now be toll rolls. 

There are deeper issues here too.  The question becomes not just who should control the internet, but who should control internet access, as the Washington Post noted.

[Should] the government … redefine broadband Internet as a public utility, like phone service, which would come with much more oversight from the FCC[?] (from the Washington Post, by Cecelia King, 5-15-14)

Should the government get involved in the people’s access to high speed internet?  The White House seems to have had an interesting reaction to the FCC announcement, according to Time.  Although President Obama promised to maintain net neutrality while campaigning in 2008, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney now says the White House will be “watching closely as the process moves forward.”

Why isn’t the president, taking more leadership on the issue?  Because, as I mentioned, the internet is big business!  As we get more and more complex, net neutrality gets harder and harder to maintain.  President Obama is aware of that, and also of the FCC’s precarious role in defining neutrality in an era of international commerce.  The reality is the United States is just one player in an international arena, and anything that we do has but a ripple effect on the world economy.  We certainly are not in total control of it. 

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