Last month, a federal appeals court ruled that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) could no longer regulate Internet Service Providers (ISPs) as if they were common carriers.
What does that mean? “Common carriers” like land line telephone companies are barred from impeding or blocking calls in any way, and for years that principle applied to ISPs like Comcast. The ruling effectively removed this restriction, theoretically allowing ISPs to block or slow down traffic for sites like Netflix if, for example, Netflix doesn’t cough up more cash to the provider for carrying its service.
Many open Internet activists were understandably outraged, and not just because it meant their House of Cards episodes would run slow.
Today, however, the FCC took a stand against this practice. The Wall Street Journal reports that the Commission will write new guidelines designed to prevent ISPs from intentionally slowing down or “throttling” Internet traffic for certain sites. The rules are expected to come by late Spring or early Summer.
Is this the big win Net Neutrality activists have awaited?
Not necessarily. First off, the courts may strike down the FCC’s attempt to enforce Net Neutrality as it’s done in the past. Even if the new rules stand, the Democratic lawmakers behind the Open Internet Preservation Act may not be satisfied. Instead of reinstating the old rules and carrier classifications as that piece of legislation recommended, the FCC has opted for new ones. Until the FCC finalizes the new guidelines, it’s hard to know exactly how much regulation power it will have over carriers.
On the other hand, even under the old Net Neutrality rules, ISPs have found more subtle ways to award or punish sites with faster or slower speeds. As Ars Technica’s Jon Brodkin writes, Netflix and YouTube rely on “Internet bandwidth providers” that help ease some of their bandwidth burdens. An ISP like Verizon can demand more money from these third-party go-betweens. But if these negotiations break down, Verizon can refuse to upgrade its infrastructure to support them, slowing down YouTube or Netflix. Again, even under the old Net Neutrality rules, this was entirely legal, and it may explain why Netflix speeds on Comcast and Verizon have steadily dropped over the past four months.
That’s why crafting new rules instead of trying to appeal for the old ones may be better for Net Neutrality. Mozilla said as much when it responded to Democrats’ Open Internet Preservation Act: “The bill would help by providing some enforceable safeguards against bad actors and acts, although it’s not a long-term solution – think of it as a tourniquet, and the open Internet needs stitches.”
Will these new rules provide the stitches the Internet needs? Possibly, but we may have to wait a few months to find out.
[Image via paltelegraph]