Why you should be upset at the FCC’s proposed changes to Net neutrality

There’s been a lot of talk, some of it quite animated, about the FCC’s revised proposal for Net neutrality. Much of the controversy centers on the fact that it could pave the way for broadband providers to charge content companies such as Netflix for faster access—so-called "fast lanes"—through their pipes into homes. Now that the FCC has voted to approve the proposal (which Consumer Reports opposes), there is a 120-day period during which consumers and companies can express their approval or objections to the plan before the FCC reconvenes and decides whether it should be adopted.

Here’s quick look at what it really means, plus some info on how you can let the FCC know where you stand.

What is Net neutrality?

In its most basic form, Net neutrality is the concept that all Internet traffic should be treated equally, so no company or traffic gets preferential treatment. That includes blocking or slowing down content from one provider in favor of another. Many say they believe that Net neutrality doesn't allow for “fast lanes” to be created only for those willing and able to pay a premium for priority access.

Why are changes being made?

In 2010 the FCC established something called the Open Internet Order. Among its key tenets was the idea that ISPs couldn’t slow down or block legal content from any site or service, and they couldn’t give some content favorable treatment over others. The order also called for transparency in how ISPs handle their network traffic.

But the the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia tossed out the Open Internet rules in January after a challenge by Verizon, which argued that the FCC lacked the regulatory authority to regulate ISPs in this fashion, essentially gutting Net neutrality. The court agreed, but did give the FCC the chance to revise its regulations, which has resulted in the new Open Internet proposal.

Why are consumer groups so upset?

The revised rules passed by the FCC seem like an attempt to bridge the gap between what consumer groups and ISPs have respectively asked for. While they call for equal treatment of traffic on the Internet and transparency in how traffic is handled, they also seem to open the door for broadband providers to create and charge for higher-priority fast lanes. There is a fear that this tips the balance in what was once a level playing field toward those companies willing and able to pay for better service, putting smaller companies and start-ups at a disadvantage and thus potentially inhibiting innovation.

Many consumer groups, including Consumers Union, think the new FCC proposal falls short of the goal of true Net neutrality.

“The FCC tried to soften the blow by asking better questions about Net neutrality and ‘pay-to-play’ deals, but the underlying plan is still far from neutral,” Delara Derakhshani, policy counsel for Consumers Union, the advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, said. “Net neutrality means all online content is treated equally. But under these rules, Internet providers could make one site available faster than another. Your provider could play favorites among the online companies that pay to play. These proposed rules could eventually mean an end to the free and open Internet as we’ve known it.”

One issue that many consumer groups have with the revised rules is that they call for fast-lane deals to be held to a “commercially reasonable” standard, which will be determined by the FCC on a case-by-case basis. There is a concern that the term is too vague to be meaningful, and could lead to arbitrary determinations by the FCC, which will have to wrangle with ISPs on a case-by-case basis.

But isn’t getting a 'fast lane' for Netflix and other streaming services a good deal for me as a consumer?

In some ways yes, but there are several concerns. One is that you may have to pay more for these services if companies such as Netflix have to pass along these extra fast-lane fees to subscribers. Also, by tipping the balance in favor of larger, better-financed companies that can afford to pay, the new rules can stifle innovation by start-ups. (Think about Netflix starting out in 2014 instead of the late '90s.) Some content, such as streaming video services and online games, requires a consistent quality of service or these businesses might not survive. There's also the question that if you create special fast lanes for a few large companies, will other Internet traffic get bottlenecked in the digital equivalent to a traffic jam? By allowing paid prioritization, there's little incentive for an ISP to provide better service for companies not paying for that faster access.  

Some have said that under the new proposal, the Internet would be more like cable television, with a handful of larger ISPs acting as gatekeepers deciding what content reaches consumers, and how quickly.

Are there any other options?

Back in 2002, the FCC made what many say was a bad decision: It sided with cable companies that wanted broadband services to be treated differently from communications services, and deemed broadband an information service. That meant they weren't subject to the "common carrier" protections to which phone companies are held. Some Net neutrality proponents argue that the FCC should reclassify broadband services as common carriers under Title II of the Communications Act so that they would fall under the stricter regulatory guidelines that apply to utilities and phone companies. (This classification, which created open, nondiscriminatory phone networks, was instrumental to a number of technological innovations—including fax machines and modem dial-up connections to the Internet—that used phone lines.)

The idea is that the Internet has become so integral to our daily lives—for communication, information, commerce, and social interactions, to name just a few—that it has become a basic necessity. But reclassification of broadband as a communications service will be a messy, and likely protracted, fight, as the large cable companies and Verizon vigorously oppose such a reclassification. Consumers Union, along with several other consumer groups, is in favor of reclassifying broadband.

How to be heard

If you'd like to let the FCC know how you feel about its proposal, you can post a comment at (Look for the Take Action tab at the top of the page, then click on the Comment pulldown.) You can also read what's already been posted by others—right now, there are almost 42,000 comments. The current deadline for comments is July 15, with reply comments ending September 15, but the agency is expected to keep accepting comments until it votes to finalize the proposal.

We're following the Net neutrality issue very closely, so keep checking back with our blog for any updated news.

—James K. Willcox

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