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On Thursday, after a long-running and heated debate, the Federal Communications Commission passed a measure to ensure that websites have equal access to Internet capacity under new rules known as “net neutrality.”
This landmark move by the government agency, though there are still some uncertainties about final implementation of the rules, was the result of a 3-to-2 vote, split along party lines. It essentially says that network owners must allow access without partiality to users.
That might sound technical, but its implications are enormous. Here’s an explanation of what that ruling means, and why it matters.
What is net neutrality?
If you’re a huge Internet service provider, such as Comcast, AT&T or Verizon, you’re a “gatekeeper” because before any Internet traffic reaches your subscribers, it has to first travel through your network. And because you control the network, it’s tempting to slow down — even block — the content of your competitors, or make extra money by collecting a fee from content providers willing to pay for faster downloads.
In other words, even though you’re already charging your customers for access to the Internet, if the content they want to see doesn’t make you money, you’d like the option of making it harder for them to see it. For example, if you’re Comcast, you might make it faster to stream your pay-per-view movies rather than those of your competitors, such as Netflix.
While some might argue that Netflix should pay more because its service hogs Internet bandwidth, the problem is that giving free reign to the gatekeepers could ultimately change everything. For example, suppose Comcast came to Money Talks News and said that for a little extra money, our site would be optimized for their customers. Refuse to pay, however, and they could throttle (slow down) our site on their network, or even make it impossible for their subscribers to see us. Agree to pay it, and Verizon could conceivably block their subscribers from this site, because we would be working with one of their competitors.
While this example is admittedly a bit far-fetched, it illustrates the potential for problems and abuse.
Tug of war over the issue
That’s the essence of net neutrality. The companies that own Internet infrastructure want to be able to decide how fast different types of traffic travels through their networks. On the other side of the issue, consumer advocates and content providers (including Money Talks News) say the net should be “neutral,” meaning gatekeepers shouldn’t be allowed to favor certain types of content over others.
The FCC has been studying the issue off and on since 2005, and in 2010, it issued a draft order that required broadband providers (such as Comcast and AT&T) to let subscribers see all legal online content at the same speed, even if that content competes with their own. (The rules were seen as a triumph by some neutrality advocates but insufficient by others because they applied to wired networks only — think cable companies — as opposed to wireless networks.)
In any case, a Court of Appeals challenge by opponents shot down the FCC rules early last year.
That meant that service providers such as Verizon, Comcast and AT&T would indeed have the ability to block or slow competing content, or charge content creators more to move it through their networks. So, for example, a gatekeeper could charge Netflix more, and Netflix could charge you more.
In this round, the FCC invoked its strongest regulatory option, called Title II, to re-establish its authority to maintain neutrality of the Internet, much as government agencies maintain open access to public utilities. FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler described the proposed rules this way in an op-ed published in Wired.
Using this authority, I am submitting to my colleagues the strongest open Internet protections ever proposed by the FCC. These enforceable, bright-line rules will ban paid prioritization, and the blocking and throttling of lawful content and services. I propose to fully apply — for the first time ever — those bright-line rules to mobile broadband. My proposal assures the rights of Internet users to go where they want, when they want, and the rights of innovators to introduce new products without asking anyone’s permission.
The FCC vote Thursday affirmed this move, narrowly, in the Democrat-led commission.