This article focuses on the recent vote by the FCC to reclassify broadband as a public utility, what that means, why it matters, and why, at present, it does not change anything about the Internet as we know it.
For an in-depth discussion of net neutrality, its recent history, and the FCC’s position over the years, please see Annie Herlocker’s article, “Net Neutrality” in the previous issue of Tennessee Libraries (2014).
As you may know, net neutrality has had its moment in the sun in recent months. When the FCC met to discuss the issue, they held “a record-setting proceeding that attracted nearly 4 million public comments” (Wheeler, 2015). The attention is well-deserved. Net neutrality has been a flashpoint and rallying cry regarding free speech for the 21st century, but discussing free speech alone is not enough to fully appreciate the idea behind net neutrality. Yes, net neutrality is about free and open speech, but it is also about our right to access information without any technological interference or unnecessary barriers from those that provide Internet service. It is the idea that all Internet traffic (read: information), regardless of its source, should be treated fairly by those entities that provide Internet service. If the Internet were a library, net neutrality would be our ability to access any book we needed without paying extra fees for the really popular book, or having our ability to borrow a book slowed down just because that particular book came from YouTube instead of Netflix. This is not a perfect analogy, but hopefully it works.
Tim Fernholz (2015) writes that the ruling can be summarized in three key points: 1) “No blocking," 2) "No throttling," and 3) "No paid prioritization.” “No blocking" means that Internet providers cannot prevent access to legal content. This particular point is solely about preventing censorship or discriminating against websites. “No throttling” requires that broadband companies allow all Internet traffic to flow freely, no matter its source. This will not, however, stop throttling when it comes to your wireless service based on usage; this is solely about stopping an Internet provider from slowing information from one source, while allowing another source to flow. Lastly, “no paid prioritization” prevents broadband providers from regulating the flow of content by charging one content provider a fee to allow their content to flow faster than a competitor's content. This is typically referred to as an Internet “fast lane.” All it means is that Comcast cannot charge Netflix a fee so that House of Cards gets to you faster (without any slowdown or buffering), while your neighbor suffers long wait times for fainting goat videos to load on YouTube at a reduced speed.
Great news! So what's different? Well, as CNET’s Marguerite Reardon (2015, Feb. 27) summed up, “What will change as a result of these new rules? Nothing. That's the whole point.” She goes on to write that the battle has really been about how to preserve net neutrality, not about its merits. The Internet has long operated on the idea of openness. No one has really argued anything to the contrary. That is not to suggest that these regulations are meaningless. They lay the foundation and provide guidelines to ensure that the Internet continues to be what it is. If you want to understand net neutrality and the underlying significance of the FCC's ruling, you need to understand that this is about market regulation.
At the heart of the net neutrality debate is the age-old question about how best to regulate markets. Do we trust market forces to self-regulate, or should the government have a hand in setting up rules and boundaries about behavior in the market? This recent FCC ruling favors the idea that there should exist some form of basic, perhaps even minimalistic, regulation. The fear of those opposed to regulation is that too much regulation is a power grab that will stifle competition, innovation, and creativity. Same fight, new arena.
As with any discussion about a complex idea, there any many ideas bundled into the debate on net neutrality. But not all of these ideas are affected by the FCC’s ruling. True, the discussion of net neutrality is about technology. But it is just as much about politics, policy, and finding the right amount of market regulation. There is no simple answer, but the FCC's ruling to regulate broadband as a public utility under the 1934 Communications Act lays the groundwork for regulation that will help ensure the Internet remains a free and open exchange of ideas. Reardon (2015, Feb. 26) writes that applying Title II to “broadband has the potential to radically change how the Internet is governed, giving the FCC unprecedented authority...The provision originally gave the agency the power to set rates and enforce... the idea that every customer gets equal access to the network.” The “network” mentioned here originally referred to phone lines, but now includes broadband. Just as phone companies could not privilege one caller over another, broadband cannot privilege one piece of data over another.
This ruling does not change anything in the short term. What it does is protect and preserve through legal means, the openness that we take for granted online.
Fernholz, T. (2015, February 26). The new net-neutrality policy, in three simple phrases. The Atlantic. Retrieved from http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2015/02/the-new-net-neutrality-policy-in-three-simple-phrases/386294/
Herlocker, A. (2014). Net neutrality. Tennessee Libraries, 64(4). Retrieved from http://www.tnla.org/?page=TL64_4_IF
Reardon, M. (2015, February 26). Net neutrality a reality: FCC votes to bring Internet under utility-style rules. CNET. Retrieved from http://www.cnet.com/news/net-neutrality-a-reality-fcc-votes-to-bring-internet-under-utility-style-rules/
Reardon, M. (2015, February 27). Seven things net neutrality won't do. CNET. Retrieved from http://www.cnet.com/news/7-things-net-neutrality-wont-do/
Wheeler, T. (2015, February 4). FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler: This is how we will ensure net neutrality. Wired. Retrieved from http://www.wired.com/2015/02/fcc-chairman-wheeler-net-neutrality/