What About Net Neutrality Now?

You probably heard about it at the time. A near-unprecedented internet furor revolving around a single issue: Should the broadband providers be able to sell preferential “fast lanes” to customers willing to pay the premium?

It seems a bit strange to realize, but the concept that the internet was a level playing field, open to all, was just that — a concept — not a law or even necessarily a guiding principle.

Everyone had an opinion on the issue, from politicians to internet celebrities, from tech companies, and even consumers, who were perhaps most appalled to discover that two major broadband suppliers had purposefully throttled popular streaming service Netflix until they agreed to a deal to pay extra for ‘reliability‘.

But then the news cycle moved on, and the uproar died. What ever happened with Net Neutrality?

The FCC Loses Its Teeth

The issue of net neutrality actually started to heat up back in 2007, when Comcast was found to be blocking or severely delaying BitTorrent uploads on their network. In 2008, the FCC upheld the complaint, ruling that it had illegally inhibited usage of its network to its paying customers. But the FCC didn’t fine Comcast, merely ruled that they must cease the practice.

Comcast, however, appealed the decision through the courts and the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that the FCC’s “assertion of regulatory authority” was not actually tied to any laws on the books, and that they therefore had no powers to regulate any Internet provider’s network or management practices. This was in 2010. In 2014, another ruling, this time by the DC Circuit Court, determined that the FCC has no authority to enforce network neutrality rules since broadband providers are not classified as ‘common carriers’. However, the court decreed that the FCC did have limited regulatory powers. After this ruling, the discussion on net neutrality devolved to a single issue: should broadband providers be reclassified as common carriers, allowing the FCC to regulate them similarly to public utilities.

The Internet Mobilizes

Here’s where you probably took notice: In May 2014, the FCC released a proposal suggestion rules which allowed for what it called “tiered service” but which critics lambasted as creating “slow lanes” for all but the most deep-pocketed online services. Over 100 online companies, including Google and Microsoft, signed a joint letter protesting the plan. Popular sites and services participated in an “Internet Slowdown” to demonstrate what life with tiered Internet would be like, and consumers mobilized to crash the FCC’s system with the weight of their concerns.

In February 2015, in a 3-2 decision, the FCC ruled that broadband carriers would no longer be classified as “information services” but as common carriers, and therefore under their full regulatory control as public utilities. Additionally, the rules apply to mobile data as well — no throttling or blocking there either.

The two dissenting opinions on the FCC board stated that this decision imposes “intrusive government regulations that won’t work to solve a problem that doesn’t exist using legal authority the FCC doesn’t have.”

Now What?

Although large ISPs attempted to block it, the ruling was upheld by the DC Circuit Court and the new rules took effect in June. It’s too soon to call whether the reclassification will promote innovation or suppress it, but one thing is certain, we’re not done talking about net neutrality.


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