Today the FCC voted three to two to reclassify broadband Internet access as a common carrier service under Title II of the Communications Act, and forbear from the parts of the Act that aren’t necessary for net neutrality rules. This reclassification gives the FCC the authority to enact (and enforce) narrow, clear rules which will help keep the Internet the open platform it is today.
As expected, the FCC’s new rules forbid ISPs from charging Internet users for special treatment on their networks. It will also reach interconnection between ISPs and transit providers or edge services, allowing the FCC to ensure that ISPs don’t abuse their gatekeeper authority to favor some services over others.
That’s great for making sure websites and services can reach ISP customers, but what about making sure customers can choose for themselves how to use their Internet connections without interference from their ISPs? To accomplish this, the FCC has banned ISPs from blocking or throttling their customers’ traffic based on content, applications or services—which means users, hackers, tinkerers, artists, and knowledge seekers can continue to innovate and experiment on the Internet, using any app or service they please, without having to get their ISP’s permission first.
Even better, the rules will apply to wireless and wired broadband in the same way, so you don’t have to worry that your phone switching from Wi-Fi to a 4G network will suddenly cause apps not to work or websites to become inaccessible. Lots of people use mobile devices as their primary way of accessing the Internet, so applying net neutrality rules to both equally will help make sure there is “one Internet” for all.
So congratulations, Team Internet. We put the FCC on the right path at last. Reclassification under Title II was a necessary step in order to give the FCC the authority it needed to enact net neutrality rules. But now we face the really hard part: making sure the FCC doesn’t abuse its authority.
For example, the new rules include a “general conduct rule” that will let the FCC take action against ISP practices that don’t count as blocking, throttling, or paid prioritization. As we said last week and last year, vague rules are a problem. The FCC wants to be, in Chairman Wheeler’s words, “a referee on the field” who can stop any ISP action that it thinks “hurts consumers, competition, or innovation.” The problem with a rule this vague is that neither ISPs nor Internet users can know in advance what kinds of practices will run afoul of the rule. Only companies with significant legal staff and expertise may be able to use the rule effectively. And a vague rule gives the FCC an awful lot of discretion, potentially giving an unfair advantage to parties with insider influence. That means our work is not yet done. We must stay vigilant, and call out FCC overreach.
The actual order is over 300 pages long, and it’s not widely available yet. Details matter. Watch this space for further analysis when the FCC releases the final order.
While the net neutrality rules are incredibly important, the FCC’s decision on municipal broadband may actually wind up being more meaningful over the long run. As we’ve noted for years, neutrality violations are really just a symptom of a lack of competition. Around twenty states now have laws in place — usually based entirely on ISP/ALEC model legislation — that prohibit towns and cities from improving their own broadband infrastructure — even in instances where nobody else will. In some cases these rules even go so far as to prohibit towns and cities from striking public/private partnerships to improve broadband service.
Specifically, the FCC voted 3-2 to approve petitions by EPB Broadband in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and Greenlight in Wilson, North Carolina. Those petitions requested that the FCC use its authority to ensure timely broadband deployment using “measures that promote competition in the local telecommunications market, or other regulating methods that remove barriers to infrastructure investment.” While some politicians have lamented the FCC’s move as a trampling of states’ rights, these individuals ironically have had no problem with ISPs writing state telecom law that tramples those same rights. The justifications for these restrictions have never been coherently supported, and Wheeler was quick to highlight the hypocrisy of the position:
“You can’t say you’re for broadband and then turn around and endorse limits on who can offer it. You can’t say, ‘I want to follow the explicit instructions of Congress to remove barriers to infrastructure investment,’ but endorse barriers on infrastructure investment. You can’t say you’re for competition but deny local elected officials the right to offer competitive choices.”
Needless to say, this is likely only a new chapter in the debate over both issues, the precise wording of the neutrality wording will be debated for months if not years, and you can expect ISP legal action on both fronts aimed at protecting the uncompetitive status quo. It also probably goes without saying that opponents of net neutrality and those who like it when AT&T, Verizon and Comcast are allowed to write protectionist telecom law aren’t taking the day’s events very well. One of the best freakouts of the day belonged to Hal Singer, author of that misleading study we’ve previously debunked claiming that you’d face $15 billion in new taxes under Title II:
While some grieve the death of imaginary “innovation angels,” thousands of others are celebrating a rare instance where Internet activism was able to overcome lobbying cash and push a government mountain toward doing the right thing.
Full Video of FCC Net Neutrality Ruling and Press Conference
World Wide Web Inventor Tim Berners-Lee Statement @ FCC Net Neutrality Ruling
Apple Co-Founder Steve Wozniak Remarks
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