The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is unrelentingly continuing its unpopular march toward a new net neutrality policy that many fear will severely cripple online services.
Last Thursday, the FCC voted three-to-two on a policy that, while it promises to attempt to protect freedom of access to the internet, appears to also allow internet service providers to create internet “fast lanes” for which they could charge companies that utilize a great deal of bandwidth, like Netflix, a fee to access. Citizens and politicians on both sides of the aisle have expressed concerns with the proposal for weeks, but it passed regardless. Its passage signals the beginning of public comment on the issue.
The policy is contentious for a number of reasons, but largely because the rules set out are difficult to comprehend for the majority of the population, who often don’t think about the massive fixed infrastructure beneath their feet that the internet requires to keep functioning. FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler has spoken several times to legislators in an attempt to explain the nature of the rules his agency have set forth and their motives for doing so, but the technicalities of the debate are still regularly misinterpreted.
As many have expressed already, the new plan could serve as a threat to net neutrality, a term designed to convey an egalitarian internet, where all content is created equal. By allowing telecom companies to broker deals with Internet providers, some have expressed concern that smaller companies and startups won’t be able to afford fast-lane services and consumers will rely more and more on websites and providers with the resources to purchase faster service. Consumer advocates also worry that providers will pass on these new costs to consumers.
All that aside, the policy adoption hardly marks the end of the discussion.
Now, the FCC will enable 120 days of public comment on the open proposal. The intention, for them, is to track industry and consumer concerns with the new law as they go about formulating the precise language of their rules.
The proposal also has stipulations that some critics are willing to view as the beginning of a compromise. Despite the rush of critics claiming that the proposal will mark the end of the Internet and signal the complete commodification of the web, FCC chairman Tom Wheeler has continued to assert that the Commission would ensure that no unfair business practices would occur under their watch.
In an article in the Washington Post, Wheeler, who contentiously considers his proposal to be a defense of net neutrality, said that he would only allow “commercially reasonable” deals to take place under the new policy, and that he will not allow the web to be compromised. The regulation of these deals, however, will be done on a case-by-case basis.
“There is one Internet. It must be fast, it must be robust, and it must be open,” Wheeler said in the article. “The prospect of a gatekeeper choosing winners and losers on the Internet is unacceptable.”
Many critics, however, still question the FCC’s ability to enforce this policy. In particular, the ability to decide what is considered “commercially reasonable” is notably ambiguous, and doesn’t quell the beliefs of many who feel that the policy will serve as a loophole for content providers to disrupt otherwise open internet access.
But the Commission sees the new policy as a compromise. The initial proposal was rejected by a court of appeals back in January because of concerns over the pay-for-priority deals. In order to accommodate this ruling, the new plan still allows these deals to occur, but asks about the possibility of banning deals of this nature outright.
In an interview with Bloomberg, Democratic Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, too, argued that the new proposal would stop companies from blocking content, allowing for a more open Internet:
“Without rules governing a free and open Internet it is possible that companies—fixed and wireless broadband providers—could independently determine whether they want to discriminate or block content, pick favorites, charge higher fees or disorient the market,” Clyburn said.
Individuals like Gabe Rottman, the policy adviser at the ACLU, make the point that the ambiguity of the present proposal offers no real protections to those using the Internet, and that without these specifications the law stands to do far more harm than good.
The outcry over these new measures has also led to a discussion about the nature of the internet itself and its role as a commodity. Many have argued that, because of its inherent importance in function in the 21st century digital world, it should be considered a public utility. Treating the Internet this way—like electricity or phone service—would lead to significantly more oversight from the FCC. Some consumer groups, bearing down on the middle course, advocate for a public option in acquiring internet service.
Regardless, the next four months will see a large amount of public discourse and corporate lobbying from technology companies like Google and telecommunication companies like Comcast. The results of those conversations could dramatically affect the way the Internet is accessed in the future.