On May 15, 2014, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler proposed rules that would allow rampant discrimination online.
Wheeler’s plan would enable Internet service providers to charge extra fees to content companies like Google and Netflix for preferential treatment. Under these rules, telecom giants like AT&T, Comcast and Verizon would be able to create a two-tiered Internet, with fast lanes for the few who could afford the new tolls — and a slow dirt road for the rest of us. These companies would have the power to pick winners and losers online and discriminate against online content and applications. And no one would be able to do anything about it.
The agency can preserve Net Neutrality only by reclassifying broadband as a telecommunications service under the law. Anything else is an attack on our rights to connect and communicate.
By the time the FCC closed the comment period on its proposal on Sept. 15, 3.7 million Americans had weighed in. And almost all commenters support strong open Internet protections.
The FCC's next move is being watched by millions — from Main Street and Silicon Valley to Congress and the White House. The agency has indicated that it wants to vote on Wheeler’s plan by the end of the year, so it’s more urgent than ever that we make our voices heard.
What is Net Neutrality?
Net Neutrality is the Internet’s guiding principle: It preserves our right to communicate freely online. This is the definition of an open Internet.
Net Neutrality means an Internet that enables and protects free speech. It means that Internet service providers should provide us with open networks — and should not block or discriminate against any applications or content that ride over those networks. Just as your phone company cannot decide who you could call and what you say on that call, your ISP should not be concerned with what content you view or post online.
The court’s January 2014 ruling has eliminated the only existing Net Neutrality protections on the books. ISPs now have the ability to block websites and applications.
What does this mean for me?
The January court decision has destroyed protections that keep the Internet open and safeguards its users’ privacy and individual choice.
ISPs like AT&T, Comcast, Time Warner Cable and Verizon want to take the worst aspects of the cable TV system and impose them on the Internet.
Expect Internet blackouts that extend far beyond the popular content vendors as smaller websites are caught in the crossfire. Tweets, emails and texts will be mysteriously delayed or dropped. Videos will load slowly, if at all. Websites will work fine one minute, and time out another. Your ISP will claim it’s not their fault, and you’ll have no idea who is to blame. You also won’t be able to vote with your feet and wallet, as there’s no competition in broadband, and all ISPs will be playing this game.
ISPs hate the idea that they’re nothing more than providers of “dumb pipes,” or connections that simply carry our traffic. Now that they’re free from any legal restraints, the ISPs will try to get Internet companies to pay tolls and threaten to block or delay them if they don’t. Exclusive deals could become the norm, with AT&T exclusively bringing you Netflix or Time Warner Cable as the sole source for YouTube.
Does this mean that websites can be blocked or slowed down?
Yes! The January court decision gave the green light to ISPs to block or interfere with traffic on the Web. That means a company can slow down its competitors or block political opinions it disagrees with. There are now no protections for Internet users.
And the FCC's latest proposal would allow ISPs to charge extra fees to content companies for preferential treatment, guaranteeing their content reaches end users ahead of those who don't pay.
What was the FCC’s ‘Open Internet Order’?
The FCC’s 2010 order
was intended to prevent broadband Internet service providers from blocking or interfering with traffic on the Web. The Open Internet Order was generally designed to ensure the Internet remained a level playing field for all — that's the principle we call Net Neutrality (we say “generally,” since the FCC’s rules prohibited wired ISPs from blocking and discriminating against content, while allowing wireless ISPs to discriminate against but not block websites).
In its January 2014 ruling, the court said that the FCC used a questionable legal framework to craft the Open Internet Order and now lacks the authority to implement and enforce those rules.
Did the court rule against Net Neutrality?
No. The court ruled against the FCC’s ability to enforce Net Neutrality. The court specifically stated that its “task as a reviewing court is not to assess the wisdom of the Open Internet Order regulations, but rather to determine whether the Commission has demonstrated that the regulations fall within the scope of its statutory grant of authority.”
When the FCC made its open Internet rule, it relied on two decisions made by the Bush-era FCC, rulings that weakened the FCC’s authority over broadband Internet access network providers. There is nothing in the January court decision that prohibits the FCC from reversing those misguided decisions and reclassifying ISPs as common carriers.
In fact, both this decision and a prior Supreme Court decision
clearly establish that the FCC must reclassify broadband if it wishes to prohibit practices like blocking websites or discriminating against apps.
We can still have Net Neutrality in America — indeed we need it — but the FCC needs to reestablish its legal authority to pass strong rules.
What does ‘reclassify’ mean?
When Congress enacted the 1996 Telecommunications Act
, it didn’t want the FCC to treat websites and other Internet services the same way it treats the local access networks that enable people to get online. Congress understood that the owners of the access networks have tremendous gatekeeper power, and so it required the FCC to treat these network owners as “common carriers,” meaning they couldn’t block or discriminate against the content that flows across their networks to/from your computer.
However, in a series of politically motivated decisions first by FCC Chairman Michael Powell (now the cable industry’s top lobbyist) and then by FCC Chairman Kevin Martin, the FCC decided to classify broadband Internet access service as an “information service,” meaning that the law sees it as no different from a website like freepress.net or an online service like LexisNexis. These decisions removed the FCC’s ability to prohibit ISPs from blocking or discriminating against online content (it also removed the FCC’s ability to ensure that ISPs protect your privacy).
In Verizon vs. FCC, the court stated that the FCC lacks authority because of “the Commission’s still-binding decision to classify broadband providers not as providers of ‘telecommunications services’ but instead as providers of ‘information services.’”
The FCC is free to revisit those prior classification decisions. And if it rightly decides that broadband is what we all know it is — a connection to the outside world that is merely faster than the phone lines we used to use for dial-up access, phone calls and faxes — then it can “reclassify” the transmission component of an ISP’s service back under the law as a “telecommunications service.”
Doing so would give the FCC authority to adopt Net Neutrality rules and/or intervene if ISPs harm the open Internet through discriminatory practices.
What all this means is that the fix for the open Internet is actually easy: The FCC needs to reverse its prior decisions and reclassify Internet access services as “telecommunications services” under the law and treat ISPs at the common carriers they are.
How does this impact privacy issues online?
Freed from any legal restraints, ISPs can monitor everything you do and say online — and sell the information to the highest bidder. ISPs have something that companies like Facebook and Google don’t: direct control over your connections to the Internet and the devices you use to connect to it.
If this ruling is left standing, it won’t be long before your ISP requires you to connect via its list of approved devices and then uses those devices to watch you. Forget using encryption — your ISP could require the key as a condition of using its network.
Internet users already face a minefield when it comes to online privacy. Social networks offer constantly changing and confusing privacy controls, and “free” websites and email providers routinely harvest and sell our personal information to advertisers. The old rules were created to protect Internet users. The January 2014 decision has unraveled these protections.
And let’s not forget that the companies pushing to kill Net Neutrality — like AT&T and Verizon — are the very same companies that have been caught enabling unchecked spying and surveillance by the NSA and other government agencies.
How does this impact businesses?
Net Neutrality is crucial for small business owners, startups and entrepreneurs, who rely on the open Internet to launch their businesses, create a market, advertise their products and services, and distribute products to customers. We need the open Internet to foster job growth, competition and innovation.
Net Neutrality lowers the barriers of entry for entrepreneurs, startups and small businesses by ensuring the Web is a fair and level playing field. It’s because of Net Neutrality that small businesses and entrepreneurs have been able to thrive on the Internet. They use the Internet to reach new customers and showcase their goods, applications and services.
No company should be able to interfere with this open marketplace. ISPs are by definition the gatekeepers to the Internet, and without Net Neutrality, they will seize every possible opportunity to profit from that gatekeeper control.
Without Net Neutrality, the next Google being built in a garage somewhere will never get off the ground.
How does this impact communities of color?
The open Internet allows communities of color to tell their own stories and to organize for racial and social justice in the digital age.
The mainstream media have often failed to allow people of color to speak for themselves. And thanks to economic inequality and runaway media consolidation, people of color own just a handful of broadcast stations. The lack of diverse ownership is a primary reason why the media have gotten away with portraying communities of color stereotypically.
The open Internet gives marginalized voices an opportunity to be heard. But without Net Neutrality, ISPs can block unpopular speech and prevent dissident voices from speaking freely online. Without Net Neutrality, people of color will lose a vital platform to shape debates on issues that impact their communities’ well-being.
And without Net Neutrality, millions of small businesses owned by people of color won't be able to compete against larger corporations online, which will further deepen the economic inequality in our nation’s most vulnerable communities.
So what can we do now?
We must stop the FCC from moving forward with these rules.
The agency can preserve Net Neutrality only by designating broadband as a telecommunications service under the law. Anything else is an attack on our rights to connect and communicate.
Millions of people have spoken out for real Net Neutrality. Now we need to push the FCC to hold public hearings on Chairman Wheeler’s proposal.
It’s been more than five years since all five FCC commissioners left Washington, D.C., in an official capacity to hear how the agency’s policies affect real people. The public is invested in the future of the open Internet and deserves to have a voice in this debate.