open_internet

The Federal Communications Commission is poised to ruin the free Internet on a technicality.

The group is expected to introduce new net neutrality laws that would allow companies to pay for better access to consumers through deals similar to the one struck by Netflix and Comcast earlier this year. The argument is that those deals don’t technically fall under the net neutrality umbrella, so these new rules won’t apply to them even though they directly affect the Internet.

At least the commission is being upfront about its disinterest in protecting the free Internet.

Reactions from around the Web

The Verge notes that the proposed rules will offer some protections to consumers:

The Federal Communication Commission’s proposal for new net neutrality rules will allow internet service providers to charge companies for preferential treatment, effectively undermining the concept of net neutrality, according to The Wall Street Journal. The rules will reportedly allow providers to charge for preferential treatment so long as they offer that treatment to all interested parties on “commercially reasonable” terms, with the FCC will deciding whether the terms are reasonable on a case-by-case basis. Providers will not be able to block individual websites, however.

The goal of net neutrality rules is to prevent service providers from discriminating between different content, allowing all types of data and all companies’ data to be treated equally. While it appears that outright blocking of individual services won’t be allowed, the Journal reports that some forms of discrimination will be allowed, though that will apparently not include slowing down websites.

Re/code summarizes the discontent with these proposed rules:

Consumer groups have complained about that plan because they’re worried that Wheeler’s rules may not hold up in court either. A federal appeals court rejected two previous versions of net neutrality rules after finding fault in the FCC’s legal reasoning. During the latest smackdown, however, the court suggested that the FCC had some authority to impose net neutrality rules under a section of the law that gives the agency the ability to regulate the deployment of broadband lines.

Internet activists would prefer that the FCC just re-regulate Internet lines under old rules designed for telephone networks, which they say would give the agency clear authority to police Internet lines. Wheeler has rejected that approach for now. Phone and cable companies, including Comcast, AT&T and Verizon, have vociferously fought that idea over the past few years.

The Chicago Tribune reports on the process directing these rules:

The five-member regulatory commission may vote as soon as May to formally propose the rules and collect public comment on them.

Virtually all large Internet service providers, such as Verizon Communications Inc. and Time Warner Cable Inc., have pledged to abide by the principles of open Internet reinforced by these rules.

But critics have raised concerns that, without a formal rule, the voluntary pledges could be pulled back over time and also leave the door open for deals that would give unequal treatment to websites or services.

Pando weighs in

David Holmes wrote about the dangers the Comcast-Netflix deal poses to independent entrepreneurs and small companies when it was first announced earlier this year:

The Internet has historically been a place where anyone could post content or offer services to the same global audience, regardless of whether you’re a kid from Arkansas or a multi-national corporation. But it’s becoming more like cable TV where content providers have to bring loads to cash to the table before companies like Time Warner and Cablevision will bring that content to millions of eyeballs.

That could leave small-time players like [VoteRockIt founder Matt] Hudson stuck on the Internet equivalent of grainy, limited-audience public access TV.

wrote about the reported Comcast-Apple deal when it was announced:

Contrary to the narrative crafted by net neutrality activists, Comcast isn’t dabbling in back room deals that subtly undermine the idea of a free Internet where all data is treated equally. It’s created a system through which it is able to convince even net neutrality supporters like Netflix CEO Reed Hastings to pay for improved performance, to get Apple to pay for the ability to reach consumers at a decent speed, to become even larger in the ISP market, and to make donations to the lawmakers tasked with keeping it in check.

But let’s go ahead and focus on the news that Apple is developing a streaming media service through which it could tighten its grip on the digital media market and, because this is Apple we’re talking about, keep rumors of an aluminum-clad television set alive. Surely that’s more important than the systematic destruction of the ideals on which the technologies that would enable that service were founded. Gotta watch those “Breaking Bad” reruns, after all.

I then wrote about the FCC’s unwillingness to defend the free Internet after Wheeler said that deals like that aren’t covered by existing net neutrality laws:

Splitting issues that could affect the foundation of the Internet and allowing companies like Comcast to hamstring the greatest technological innovation in human history — or at least the innovation just behind man-made fire and wine — because the FCC wants to focus on semantics is insane. The Internet isn’t just the series of tubes connecting Comcast’s infrastructure to our homes: it’s the whole damned thing, from the servers operated by companies like Netflix all the way down to the cables in our homes.

Comcast might not be violating net neutrality laws, but it’s certainly violating the spirit behind them. It’s about time the FCC did something about that.

And then I wrote about the European Union’s attempts to defend the free Internet:

The legislation is meant to provide access to online services ‘without discrimination, restriction or interference, independent of the sender, receiver, type, content, device, service or application.’ For example, ISPs would be barred from slowing down or ‘throttling’ the speed at which one service’s videos are delivered while allowing other services to stream at normal rates. To bastardize Gertrude Stein: a byte is a byte is a byte.

Such restrictions would prevent deals like the one Comcast recently made with Netflix, which will allow the service’s videos to reach consumers faster than before. Comcast is also said to be in talks with Apple for a deal that would allow videos from its new streaming video service to reach consumers faster than videos from competitors. The Federal Communications Commission’s net neutrality laws don’t apply to those deals, according to FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, so they are allowed to continue despite the threat they pose to the free Internet.

[Image by balleyne]