On Thursday, the FCC (Federal Communications Commission), www.fcc.gov, voted to restore the classification of broadband Internet access service as an “information service” under Title I of the Communications Act. This replaces the previous classification of mobile broadband Internet access service as a more of a utility under Title II of the Communications Act, a classification that had been in place since 2015. The FCC has spoken, but the question on many people’s minds remains: Does the Internet need regulation?
Depending on whom you ask, the word “regulation” could be equivalent to a breath of fresh air or a dirty four-letter word (literally). Most people fall somewhere in between depending on the context. When it comes to net neutrality, however, opinions often seem decided and passionate, with everyone from celebrities and industry leaders to former presidents, journalists, and bloggers weighing in on the debate.
Net neutrality, or network neutrality, was originally discussed in these terms in a 2003 paper called “Network Neutrality, Broadband Discrimination” published by Tim Wu. Wu anticipated the net neutrality debate and the arguments for and against it with surprising accuracy, despite writing more than a decade ago. In his paper, Wu wrote: “Communications regulators over the next decade will spend increasing time on conflicts between the private interests of broadband providers and the public’s interest in a competitive innovation environment centered on the Internet.”
As Wu foresaw in 2003, proponents of open-access Internet and net neutrality legislation see it as a way to preserve the neutrality of the network. Neutrality would require ISPs (Internet Service Providers) to treat Internet content, platforms, users, and applications the same. In practice, this would prevent providers from purposefully slowing down or blocking particular sites or content. The fear from those who advocate for net neutrality is that ISPs will use their power for competitive advantage (for instance, by degrading service on competitors’ sites), for political reasons, or for other purposes that would interfere with consumers’ and businesses’ ability to access a free and neutral Internet.
Prior to yesterday’s decision, 21 high-profile technologists, including Tim Berners-Lee, Vint Cerf, and Steve Wozniak, penned an open letter to the FCC called “Internet Pioneers and Leaders Tell the FCC: You Don’t Understand How the Internet Works,” which called for FCC Chairman Ajit Pai to cancel the December 14 vote on the FCC’s proposed Restoring Internet Freedom initiative. Pai, however, saw the issue differently and made it perfectly clear that he favored an approach that promises to return the United States to a bipartisan, “light-touch” regulatory framework.
Those opposed to net neutrality see regulation as unnecessary and invasive. Some critics believe net neutrality laws would discourage competition among service providers, which often benefits consumers and leads to lower prices and/or improved features, and could slow investment and, therefore, innovation. Other critics simply believe the fears that lead people to favor net neutrality are vastly overblown.
“With the lack of Net Neutrality policies in place, it will create a bias towards operators’ content partners, which means that it’d be mostly the bigger TV networks and streaming services enjoying the operator exposure and ‘airtime’. EU (European Union) regulators are stricter when it comes to Net Neutrality. The issue is that, unlike the United States, each country has its own regulatory body enforcing these rules and thus we still see member countries where Net Neutrality rules are held to different levels,” says Gil Regev, chief communications officer, RGK Mobile.
“The concern on the actual content side is that people who are exposed to limited sources of information (which, in the day and age of social media, is the best majority of the population), will be fed specific propaganda, without having a wider view of what’s available. The open access to information has always been a cornerstone of the Internet and should remain so,” Regev adds.
On Monday, the FCC and the FTC (Federal Trade Commission), www.ftc.gov, released a draft of a Memorandum of Understanding, under which the FTC says the two agencies will coordinate “online consumer protection efforts” now that the Restoring Internet Freedom Order is adopted. The memorandum provides enforceable guidelines and best practices for ISPs that, Pai suggests, takes the place of “heavy-handed regulations.” The FCC has spoken in favor of a “light touch,” but far from everyone is sold that this is the best move. Tweet us your opinions on net neutrality @ConnectedWMag or me at @peggy_smedley.
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