On February 26, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) made a landmark ruling in favor of net neutrality by reclassifying the internet as a Title II public utility. If you aren’t familiar with the term, net neutrality is the idea that all internet data should be treated equally. Net neutrality is intended to prevent internet providers from profiting off prioritizing and deprioritizing data from certain sources. FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said, “after a decade of debate in an open, robust year-long process, we finally have legally sustainable rules to ensure that the Internet stays fast, fair and open.”
This ruling was the culmination of years of campaigning for and against net neutrality. You may remember the bitter drama between Comcast and Netflix last year where Comcast insisted that Netflix pay extra fees to offset the amount of data it consumed. Netflix didn’t respond well to that idea, but they eventually relented and paid the fees. This FCC ruling eliminates situations like that and has two closely related effects:
Internet providers lose the ability to artificially create internet “fast lanes” and then sell them to companies that can afford them. For example, Comcast couldn’t artificially create a paid “fast lane” for Hulu’s data to compel competitors like Netflix and Amazon to sign similar deals to stay competitive.
Accordingly, smaller businesses that wouldn’t be able to pay those extra fees in the first place will be able to compete on an even playing ground as far as internet speeds go.
Internet providers have been adamant that this ruling was unnecessary at best and draconian at worst. Verizon released a distinctly bitter statement that described the ruling as “wholly unnecessary.” To further make their point, they released the statement in literal Morse code to draw parallels between the FCC’s ruling and the Communications Act of 1934. One of the primary results of that act was increased government regulation of telephone companies.
Internet providers are hardly the most unbiased people on this subject though. It may be correct to say that net neutrality issues haven’t become a pandemic yet, but they exist. The spat between Netflix and Comcast was perhaps the most public such incident, but other incidents have happened. Comcast was involved in a dispute between 2006 and 2008 where they were criticized and finally sued for handicapping Bittorrent traffic. The FCC intervened and ordered Comcast to stop, but this ruling was later appealed and turned over in Comcast Corp. V. FCC. The court found that, coincidently, the FCC lacked the power to tell Comcast what to do.
That is where this ruling comes in. By reclassifying the internet as a public utility similar to phone services, the FCC now has much sharper teeth. This won’t stop the internet provider giants from having veritable monopolies in many areas, but it is a step toward keeping them accountable. Speaking on this issue at the Mobile World Congress, Wheeler said “This is no more regulating the internet than the First Amendment regulates free speech in our country… there needs to be a referee with a yardstick, and that is the structure we have put in place. A set of rules that say activity should be just and reasonable, and somebody who can raise the flag if they aren’t.”
Not everyone agrees with this ruling though, particularly on the right. In a piece published on CNET, former FCC director Michael Powell complained about how, among other things, the ruling will allow the FCC to set rates. This ignores the fact that the FCC has already stated they have no intention to regulate rates. Later in that piece, Powell wrote that customers “will wait longer to receive faster next-generation services” due to internet providers’ activities being “subjected to regulatory second-guessing that will slow the dynamic improvements we all desire.” He apparently missed the irony in how non-existent improvements already are among U.S. internet providers. largely due to a severe lack of competition.
This ruling doesn’t change the internet on the surface, but we now have safeguards against abuse. Naysayers may criticize this decision for giving the government more power, but there is far more harm that could result from giving internet providers free range. Where would you rather have power over the internet vested—in the hands of an independent governmental organization that (although naturally not perfect) is intended to serve the public good, or in the hands of Comcast and friends?