The American Federal Communications Commission (FCC) – the body which regulates radio, television and all other forms of interstate electronic communications – is enacting some significant new rules on the Internet. The commission set out to create a situation of “net neutrality” in the market – one in which Internet providers give equal opportunities for speed and access to all websites.
The question facing the commission was whether, in the future, network owners like Comcast or Time Warner Cable could choose who and what is accessed by their network and how. Until this point, the oligopoly of select network owners could, for example, give certain favored companies faster use of their cable Internet network or block other companies completely from being accessed by customers. In the past, Verizon’s Internet blocked the product Google Wallet. Comcast purposefully slowed down access to file-sharing services, based on their own strategic or political reasons, for which customers suffered. Rural telephone provider Madison River blocked Vonage’s over-the-Internet phone calls. The commission decided that these practices were unfair, by a vote of 3-to-2, and sent these industry giants into a rage
The rules are scheduled to come into force in the summer of 2015, by which time they will most likely be challenged in court by the major telecommunications companies. So don’t expect any changes in your AT&T or Time Warner Internet plans for the meantime.
The new regulations technically fall under Title II of the 1934 Telecommunications Act, an existing set of rules that apply to phone companies. Tom Wheeler, chairman of the FCC, argued, “This is no more a plan to regulate the Internet than the First Amendment is a plan to regulate free speech…They both stand for the same concept: openness, expression and an absence of gatekeepers.”
Critics of the new laws cite the existence of a middle-road option for regulation, whereby unfair blockages and practices are forbidden, but network owners can still enforce practical and necessary traffic management on cable networks: practices that will ensure that customers’ streaming video is sufficiently fast, etc.
Rob Atkinson, president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, cited the need for more specificity. “This has become a debate about a false choice: letting carriers do whatever the heck they want and overly burdensome regulations,” Atkinson said.
After the results were in, President Barack Obama tweeted, “Today’s FCC decision will protect innovation and create a level playing field for the next generation of entrepreneurs.”