FCC net neutrality proposals tackle internet fast lane - why no one is happy

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Last week, the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) came out with new proposals that could leave the door open for internet service providers to give preferential treatment to some traffic, in what has been called a "fast lane" for the internet.

The main objection to the fast lane is that it would lead to slower connections for those who don't pay for it, giving an unfair advantage to those who pay for better, faster service.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, on the other hand, proposes that an internet fast lane could be achieved without harming the baseline speeds of other, non-premium traffic.

And therein lies the crux of the debate.

To be clear, the FCC's 15 May proposal is not a final decision on a fast lane or any other aspect of net neutrality, but is instead what the FCC somewhat cryptically calls a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM).

The FCC's final ruling won't be for a long time yet - it will come after the extended public comment period closes on 10 September 2014.

In this period, we can expect the debate over a fast lane for content providers who are willing to pay for it to get even more heated.

Another key piece of the FCC's NPRM is whether broadband should be classified as a public utility, like electricity and phone service, which would make it subject to greater government regulation.

ISPs including Verizon, Comcast, and AT&T have spent millions of dollars lobbying the FCC in recent years to prevent that from happening.

Verizon's Randal Milch, general counsel and executive vice president for public policy, said in a statement that "1930s style utility regulation" would harm innovation and investment.

On net neutrality, however, Milch said Verizon supports it:

Verizon has long been committed to an open internet for a simple reason: our customers demand it. This was true before the FCC ever considered putting rules in place, and serving our customers will ensure our commitment to an open internet regardless of what the FCC does in the future.

Comcast also claims to support net neutrality, with Executive Vice President David L. Cohen making a statement that the company has no plans to offer "paid prioritization".

So why are there so many people worried that this FCC proposal spells the end of the open internet?

In essence, the battle for net neutrality comes down to who has legal authority over the internet, and whether ISPs can do, well, whatever they want.

internet-protest-fist-170

Despite protestations from Verizon and Comcast that they are not interested in a fast lane, these companies are fighting for their right to have one.

It's a strange position, but it comes down to a few key provisions in two US laws - Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act and Title II of the Communications Act.

The reason we are even talking about these arcane FCC rules is that the FCC's last attempt at regulating ISPs was struck down by the US Circuit Court of Appeals in Verizon v. FCC.

Under the Telecommunications Act of 1996, the court ruled, the FCC must allow paid prioritization.

Therefore, legal experts argue that keeping net neutrality in place, and enforceable, would require making broadband a public utility under Title II of the Communications Act.

According to Comcast's Cohen, his company is committed to an open internet, but that paid prioritization is not covered by the current rules and, therefore, he does not believe it's "illegal."

All this has internet companies quite nervous.

The Internet Association, a lobbying group whose members include Google, Facebook, Netflix, and many others, said they are opposed to any discrimination in web traffic.

And that means nothing should be off the table, the association said, which presumably includes regulating the internet as a utility.

In the debate about keeping the internet open there has been too much rhetoric surrounding the FCC’s legal tools. Protecting an open internet, free from discriminatory or anticompetitive actions by broadband gatekeepers should be the cornerstone of Net Neutrality policy.

The Internet Association will advocate for the FCC to use its full legal authority to enforce rules that lead to an open internet - nothing should be taken off the table as this discussion evolves.

Meanwhile, in this battle between the ISPs and the big internet companies, consumers seem to hold far less sway.

Free Press, a Massachusetts-based nonprofit advocate for broad internet access, organized a protest of so-called fast lanes at the FCC meeting.

"The only parties cheering this idea on will be the largest ISPs that stand to profit from discrimination," Free Press said in April.

The fact is, net neutrality is on life support until these legal issues are hashed out.


Images of fast lane sign and raised fist courtesy of Shutterstock.

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2 Responses to FCC net neutrality proposals tackle internet fast lane - why no one is happy

  1. The current openness of the internet today is a direct result of a service, unregulated by the market, that was shaped by market conditions.

    Back in the 90's the internet in it's current form didn't really exist other than as an add-on to existing online services like Prodigy, AOL and CompuServe. These providers tried different pricing models at the time, such as per hour (AOL) and per-email message (Prodigy), but in every case the backlash from the users and the introduction of the internet led to the demise of those pricing models and their services. It proved that unrestricted, unregulated access is the only thing that would work, and in time, users decided the internet was the only thing they really wanted.

    In my opinion, let the market work they way it's intended. If demand is higher than the network can handle, raise prices to stem the tide and upgrade the network with the extra profits. Users want access, they want it stable, and they want it fast. And if they can get it, they will pay for it, regardless of what it costs. Just look at ISP rates in Alaska.

    But keep the government out of it.

  2. Christine · 65 days ago

    Not actually true. You did not have to subscribe to Prodigy, AOL or Compuserve to get access to the internet in the 90s. I have been happily using the internet since 1981, long before the masses even knew you could link computers together long distance.

    By the 90s, it was easy to get access to the internet through any computer linked there. And by "internet" I don't just mean the World Wide Web, as it came to be called. Prodigy, AOL and Compuserve were expensive pay models for people who had no other access to the internet, but it was a very small part of internet access at the time. I always had the impression those companies were used by "newbies" without the knowledge to do any better...

    The development of the internet in those days had very little to do with a "free enterprise" model of operation. You could get academic or military access, but in addition, there were literally hundreds of small providers who, for a tiny fee, would connect anyone to the internet. They were gobbled up by big business about 15 years ago and now there are only a few access points to the internet, through these (apparently ever more greedy) large companies. This is fairly new, at least in terms of the history of the internet.

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About the author

John Zorabedian is a blogger, copywriter and editor at Sophos. He has a background in journalism, writing about technology, business, politics and culture. He lives and works in the Boston area.