A ruling handed down Tuesday by the FCC that will allow Internet service providers to charge customers based on the amount of bandwidth they use. And some argue that it's the greatest threat to freedom we face today.
Welcome to the complex world of net neutrality.
The basic problem is simple: As online video has grown in popularity, thanks to sites like YouTube and Hulu.com, Internet service providers (ISPs) complain that each consumer is more of a burden to service -- that's you, me and your next-door neighbor, Phil.
Today, Comcast, Time Warner, or whomever you pay monthly, charges you and Phil more or less the same amount. But Phil watches four hours of basketball every night. Should he pay more for that? There's the neutrality part, the argument that you should pay one fee for access to the entire Internet, regardless of what type of content you watch or which sites you visit.
Well … that makes sense, right? If service providers could charge based on the type of content you watch, they could easily create a system like that of today's cable television market. Want HBO? It's an extra $5. Want our streaming video package, with YouTube, Hulu, TV.com, and more? That's $5 too. Don't pay and you can't watch. Period.
Internet service giants like Comcast and Verizon want to offer premium and privileged access to the Internet for corporations who can afford to pay for it," worried Minnesota senator Al Franken in an editorial at the Huffington Post. ISPs argue -- and the FCC just agreed -- that they should be allowed to charge based on the amount of bandwidth they use. It remains to be seen whether the type of content will be protected, however.
The more people speculate, the more the nightmarish scenarios quickly pile up.
Consider the overlap between service providers and content providers. Time Warner owns local channel NY1 in New York City. What's to stop the company from optimizing access to its site -- and charging you more for access to other local news? Sound silly? Don't forget that Comcast has been fighting to buy NBC, at a proposed $13.8 billion.
Maybe that's why Franken called it the most important issue of our time.
Others agree -- but argue that the best thing we can do is absolutely nothing.
Nothing is broken that needs fixing, wrote Robert McDowell, a Republican commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission, in an opinion essay in the Wall Street Journal. "The Internet has been open and freedom-enhancing since it was spun off from a government research project in the early 1990s. Its nature as a diffuse and dynamic global network of networks defies top-down authority. Ample laws to protect consumers already exist."
Opinions are so diverse it's hard to wrap your head around, and all perspectives seem realistic, at least on some level. Technologists are passionate: TechCrunch editor John Biggs wrote that "if we stay silent on this, the will change."
Privacy advocates are worried: watchdogs at the Electronic Frontier Foundation fear that rules will make it impossible for new companies to launch, creating " barriers to entry for the next generation of garage innovators."
Net neutrality may be designed to allow for a tiered Internet. Or it may end up preventing one entirely. Who knows? The FCC held most discussions behind closed doors, until this morning's debate and final approval of the regulations.
But either way, it's bound to end up affecting your wallet. And you should care -- if for no other reason than that.
We saw that the Gov was busting torrents in the name of stopping terrorism, I imagine 'counterfeits' of medical compounds would fit on that list right away.
Seems like the net neutrality bill, originally designed to keep the internet free, in the sense ISP's shouldn't be able to charge you to have preferential speed or access to the public has been hit hard by lobbyists doing their corporate masters bidding...
'Net Neutrality' Rules Set to Pass
By AMY SCHATZ
WASHINGTON—The top communications regulator won support to pass contentious new rules for Internet traffic, a move likely to face legal challenges and create uncertainty about Internet regulation.
The FCC has approved rules that would give the federal government authority to regulate Internet traffic and prevent broadband providers from selectively blocking web traffic. WSJ's Amy Schatz explains what the new rules really mean.
The Federal Communications Commission is set to approve on Tuesday Chairman Julius Genachowski's proposed rules governing net neutrality—a concept aimed at preventing Internet providers from interfering with web traffic.
The rules are expected to bar providers from discriminating against legal Internet traffic and require more transparency. They also would let broadband providers for the first time charge more to companies that want faster service for delivery of games, videos or other services.
Net neutrality has become a contentious issue as worries grow that large phone and cable companies are growing too powerful as Internet gatekeepers. Start-ups and small businesses that rely on the Internet to provide shopping, information or other services to consumers are particularly concerned.
The FCC has wanted to step in and act as an Internet traffic cop, but Congress has never given it clear authority to do so.
"We must take action to protect consumers against price hikes and closed access to the Internet—and our proposed framework is designed to do just that: to guard against these risks while recognizing the legitimate needs and interests of broadband providers," FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said in a blog post this month.
The proposal has split the five-member FCC board. The two Republican members say the proposed rules impose an unneeded burden and will discourage broadband investment.
Mr. Genachowski's two Democratic colleagues said his plan didn't go far enough, particularly on rules covering wireless networks, but agreed to back it anyway. Journal Community
The proposed rules are expected to provide some new protections for consumers, such as a guarantee that they can access legal websites, and require providers to give more data on Internet speeds and service.
The rules include fewer restrictions on wireless broadband networks.
Mr. Genachowski's proposal has drawn mixed reaction from industry, advocacy groups and members of Congress.
Phone and cable companies have offered some praise, as have some venture capitalists, including John Doerr, who called it "pragmatic balance of innovation, economic growth and crucial investment in the Internet."
For the most part, phone and cable companies have said they didn't want new rules on Internet lines. But they have mostly backed AT&T Inc.'s push to compromise with Mr. Genachowski.
Liberal activists and some consumer advocates have sharply criticized the proposal, saying it allows too much leeway to big broadband providers and falls well short of promises made by President Barack Obama, including limits on how the rules apply to mobile broadband networks.
"The chairman seems more willing to work with the companies he's supposed to be regulating than his fellow commissioners at the FCC," said Joel Kelsey, political advisor for Free Press, a public advocacy group.
Sen. Al Franken (D., Minn.) wrote on a blog Monday that "grassroots supporters of net neutrality are beginning to wonder if we've been had" and that the proposal was "worse than nothing."
Republicans are vowing a fight. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R., Texas) wants to cut off FCC funding to enforce the rules. House GOP lawmakers plan hearings and legislation to overturn the FCC's planned rules.
The rules are also expected to be challenged in court. Similar rules proposed by the agency in 2005 were thrown out by a federal appeals court in April.
In April, a federal appeals court tossed the FCC's first effort to enforce net neutrality rules, saying the agency hadn't justified its authority to act. The current proposal is expected to use a similar argument to the one used in the April case.
In May, the FCC's general counsel said using a variation on the same argument was "a recipe for prolonged uncertainty" but FCC lawyers now say upon further consideration, they believe their plan will withstand challenge.
Free Press: FCC Net Neutrality Order a 'Squandered Opportunity'
WASHINGTON -- By a 3-2 vote Tuesday, the Federal Communications Commission approved new rules intended to prevent Internet providers like AT&T, Comcast and Verizon from acting as gatekeepers on the Web. The rules, however, heavily favor the industry they are intended to regulate, and leave consumers with minimal protections. Democratic Commissioners Mignon Clyburn and Michael Copps voted with Chairman Julius Genachowski, while Republican Commissioners Robert McDowell and Meredith Attwell Baker voted against.
Free Press Managing Director Craig Aaron made the following statement:
"We are deeply disappointed that the chairman chose to ignore the overwhelming public support for real Net Neutrality, instead moving forward with industry-written rules that will for the first time in Internet history allow discrimination online. This proceeding was a squandered opportunity to enact clear, meaningful rules to safeguard the Internet's level playing field and protect consumers.
"The new rules are riddled with loopholes, evidence that the chairman sought approval from AT&T instead of listening to the millions of Americans who asked for real Net Neutrality. These rules don't do enough to stop the phone and cable companies from dividing the Internet into fast and slow lanes, and they fail to protect wireless users from discrimination. No longer can you get to the same Internet via your mobile device as you can via your laptop. The rules pave the way for AT&T to block your access to third-party applications and to require you to use its own preferred applications.
"Chairman Genachowski ignored President Obama's promise to the American people to take a 'back seat to no one' on Net Neutrality. He ignored the 2 million voices who petitioned for real Net Neutrality and the hundreds who came to public hearings across the country to ask him to protect the open Internet. And he ignored policymakers who urged him to protect consumers and maintain the Internet as a platform for innovation. It's unfortunate that the only voices he chose to listen to were those coming from the very industry he's charged with overseeing."
F.C.C. Is Set to Regulate Net Access By BRIAN STELTER
The Federal Communications Commission appears poised to pass a controversial set of rules that broadly create two classes of Internet access, one for fixed-line providers and the other for the wireless Net.
The proposed rules of the online road would prevent fixed-line broadband providers like Comcast and Qwest from blocking access to sites and applications. The rules, however, would allow wireless companies more latitude in putting limits on access to services and applications.
Before a vote set for Tuesday, two Democratic commissioners said Monday that they would back the rules proposed by the F.C.C. chairman, Julius Genachowski, which try to satisfy both sides in the protracted debate over so-called network neutrality. But analysts said the debate would soon resume in the courts, as challenges to the rules are expected in the months to come.
Net neutrality, broadly speaking, is an effort to ensure equal access to Web sites and cutting-edge online services. Mr. Genachowski said these proposed rules aimed to both encourage Internet innovation and protect consumers from abuses.
“These rules fulfill a promise to the future — to companies that don’t yet exist, and the entrepreneurs that haven’t yet started work in their dorm rooms or garages,” Mr. Genachowski said in remarks prepared for the commission’s meeting on Tuesday in Washington. At present, there are no enforceable rules “to protect basic Internet values,” he added.
Many Internet providers, developers and venture capitalists have indicated that they would accept the proposal by Mr. Genachowski, which Rebecca Arbogast, a regulatory analyst for Stifel Nicolaus, a financial services firm, said “is by definition a compromise.”
The companies have said the rules would provide some regulatory certainty. In private, they have acknowledged the proposal could have been much worse. If approved, they “will give some assurances to the companies that are building Web applications — companies like Netflix, Skype and Google — that they will get even treatment on broadband networks,” Ms. Arbogast said.
But a wide swath of public interest groups have lambasted the proposal as “fake net neutrality” and said it was rife with loopholes. One group, Public Knowledge, said that instead of providing clear protections, the F.C.C. “created a vague and shifting landscape open to interpretation. Consumers deserved better.”
Notably, the rules are watered down for wireless Net providers like AT&T and Verizon, which would be prohibited from blocking Web sites, but not from blocking applications or services unless those applications directly compete with providers’ voice and video products, like Skype.
F.C.C. officials said there were technological reasons for the wireless distinctions, and that they would continue to closely monitor the medium.
Citing the wireless proposal, Senator Al Franken, Democrat of Minnesota, said over the weekend that the F.C.C. was effectively allowing discrimination on the mobile Net, a fast-growing sector.
“Maybe you like Google Maps. Well, tough,” Mr. Franken said on Saturday on the Senate floor. “If the F.C.C. passes this weak rule, Verizon will be able to cut off access to the Google Maps app on your phone and force you to use their own mapping program, Verizon Navigator, even if it is not as good. And even if they charge money, when Google Maps is free.”
He added, “If corporations are allowed to prioritize content on the Internet, or they are allowed to block applications you access on your iPhone, there is nothing to prevent those same corporations from censoring political speech.”
Mr. Franken and other critics say the rules come with major caveats; for instance, they would allow for “reasonable network management” by broadband providers. And they would discourage but not expressly forbid something called “paid prioritization,” which would allow a media or technology company to pay the provider for faster transmission of data, potentially creating an uneven playing field.
The F.C.C. officials also said that the order would require transparency about those network management practices. “That sunshine will help deter bad behavior,” one of the officials said. They spoke only on the condition of anonymity because the F.C.C. order has not been made public.
President Obama has repeatedly indicated his support for net neutrality principles, and his chief technology officer, Aneesh Chopra, said on Dec. 1 that the F.C.C. proposal was an “important step in preventing abuses and continuing to advance the Internet as an engine of productivity growth and innovation.”
The two Democratic commissioners, Michael Copps and Mignon Clyburn, acknowledged on Monday that the order was not as strong as they would have liked. But they said it had been improved this month in discussions with Mr. Genachowski, and they said they would not oppose it.
Their votes along with Mr. Genachowski’s would be enough to approve the order at the F.C.C. meeting on Tuesday.
Two Republican commissioners, Meredith Baker and Robert McDowell, are expected to oppose it. Republicans have suggested that the net neutrality rules are an example of government overreach; in an opinion piece on Monday in The Wall Street Journal, Mr. McDowell asserted that “nothing is broken that needs fixing.”
In a statement Monday afternoon, Mr. Copps strongly disagreed. He said he wanted to ensure that the Internet “doesn’t travel down the same road of special interest consolidation and gate-keeper control that other media and telecommunications industries — radio, television, film and cable — have traveled.”
“What an historic tragedy it would be,” he said, “to let that fate befall the dynamism of the Internet.”