Net Neutrality: The Big Event on June 12th

Net Neutrality: The Big Event on June 12th

It’s been called a “monumental and unlawful power grab,” the “nuclear option,” and “one giant step backwards,” as well as a “sweet victory for the Internet” and a “victory for free speech.”   These are all descriptions of the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) 2015 Open Internet Order, a set of new regulations published in March to become effective on June 12th.   Clearly, there are disparate views on whether the FCC’s new policy is laudable or disastrous.

If you’re not following the debate, commonly referred to as “net neutrality,” let me attempt to give you the skinny and the status.

Net neutrality generally refers to the principle that the owners of networks that provide access to the Internet should not control how consumers access lawful content nor discriminate against content providers’ access to the Internet.  In general, there is agreement that the Internet should exist, largely as it has, as a platform for free communication, connectivity, and creativity. But, as innovation explodes and with it Internet utilization, there is concern about degradation of service and speed, and a resulting attempt by Internet service providers to manage access and prioritize service in a way that may unfairly benefit some and disadvantage others.

So ensued a now decade-long debate about how to ensure equal access for and non-discriminatory treatment of Internet users.  Some believe it’s a private sector issue that should be worked out via the free market.  Their view is that so far it’s worked pretty well.  Others believe the government must step in before real problems start.  Since 2005, the FCC has tried to impose government principles and regulations to ensure net neutrality, but its claims of statutory authority to do so have been challenged in court with some success.   Others believe if there is to be government regulation, current law does not suffice, and Congress needs to act to provide guidance and the appropriate statutory authority to regulate this new frontier and prevent FCC overreach.

As Congress works to find consensus on the right policy, the FCC is marching on to assert the authority they believe they do have to regulate the rules around Internet access.  The most recent attempt is the 2015 Open Internet Order, which asserts a new claim of authority by reclassifying broadband Internet access services as telecommunications (rather than information) services, thus subjecting them to Title II of the Communications Act of 1934.  Title II is designed to regulate “common carriers” under more rigorous rules than Title I, which governs information services with a lighter approach.   Until this year, the FCC has argued that Title I regulation of the Internet is appropriate.  Under the new order, FCC says only some provisions of the more onerous Title II will apply, but opponents fear that once Internet services are under the yoke of this law, the government cannot be trusted to rein itself in or to not exert more control over how Internet services are managed.  Whether that’s a good or bad thing depends on your faith in government, and perhaps your trust of Internet service providers.

Those who feel the FCC has gone too far and is on shaky legal ground have appealed to the courts to stay some of the FCC’s rules.    So the effects on consumers, both individuals and companies large and small remain to be seen.  What will this all mean for cost, service and access?  Depends on the fate of Order and who you talk to.  Stay tuned.

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