It’s a new offensive in a battle as old as the internet itself. Several months ago, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals reconfirmed its earlier decision to strike down key Federal Communications Commission (FCC) rules defending net neutrality. Net neutrality is the idea that all content on the internet should be treated equally, free from discrimination based on what it is, who made it, how much data it uses, or who is receiving that data. To comply with the court ruling, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler has unveiled a stunning policy: a complete reversal of the Commission’s previous defense of net neutrality.
The best way to think of the FCC’s proposal is to imagine the internet as a congested highway. The new plan would allow internet service providers (ISPs) to charge companies fees in exchange for access to a high speed lane to transmit broadband data across the internet-think of it like an express lane you have to pay a toll to use.
The ramifications of the policy have proponents of net neutrality up in arms. They believe this is the first step on a road which leads to the end of the open internet. It would undoubtedly result in increased prices for consumers as companies like Google (owner of Youtube) are forced to purchase access to the expressway, and pass the costs along to users. On the other hand, startup companies too small to afford the costs of the high speed lane may be unable to get off the ground and reach a large base of customers while maintaining sustainable speed. There’s also speculation that the FCC will be unable to cope with the changes and introduce successful regulations to curb the new market power granted to ISPs.
The FCC has fired back, noting the separation between net neutrality and the open internet. The Commission claims it is only following the court rulings and the law, noting that the FCC has no implicit legal ability to stop ISPs from offering the express lanes. In addition, the group has added that if the proposal gets the support of three of the five FCC Commissioners, it will move into a period of public review and revision before finally being approved toward the end of the year. This interim discussion period would undoubtedly consist of criticism and analysis of potential behavior which might fit the FCC’s vague definition of “commercially reasonable” in order to more concretely decide what ISPs can and cannot charge for, and to ensure they do not use their pricing power to favor their own content over that supported by rivals. The FCC has also released official communications noting that no legal content will be blocked and that this policy will improve overall internet transparency.
The outcome of the Commission’s vote will be released today, May 15th.