Net neutrality. Open Internet. Broadband service providers. These are all buzz words that have been bandied about in the media in recent months in the widening debate about the changing Internet and how to make it available to all Americans, including communities of color.
There is good reason for the chatter. It comes ahead of a U.S. Federal Communications Commission vote on Feb. 26 on rules designed to treat all website traffic equally and prevent Internet Service Providers from blocking traffic for competitive reasons or prioritizing traffic from those who pay more.
Where President Obama stands on the issue
Ahead of the vote, President Obama has forwarded an “Open Internet” plan based on the idea that “We cannot allow Internet service providers (ISPs) to restrict the best access or to pick winners and losers in the online marketplace for services and ideas.” Toward that end, he has called on the FCC “to reclassify consumer broadband service under Title II of the Telecommunications Act” minus some “rate regulation and other provisions less relevant to broadband services.”
A strong proponent of net neutrality since his first presidential campaign, he is urging the FCC to adopt a measure that also follows four steps, according to the White House:
No blocking. If a consumer requests access to a website or service, and the content is legal, providers should not be allowed to block it.
No throttling. Providers should not be able to intentionally slow down some content or speed up others — through a process often called “throttling”—based on the type of service or provider preferences.
Increased transparency. The connection between consumers and service providers — the so-called “last mile” — is not the only place some sites might get special treatment. So, he’s asking the FCC to apply net neutrality rules to points of interconnection between the provider and the rest of the Internet.
No paid prioritization. Simply put: No service should be stuck in a “slow lane” because it does not pay a fee. That kind of gatekeeping would undermine the level playing field essential to the Internet’s growth, the White House says.
Critics and supporters of the White House plan
The president’s plan has met with general opposition from congressional Republicans. They are proposing their own legislative version of the Open Internet which would rely on existing antitrust law and avoid reclassifying broadband as, essentially, a public utility. Others opposing that approach include some civil rights groups who, focused on closing the digital racial divide, argue that the FCC should instead use Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which requires the agency to ensure that broadband service is available to “all Americans.” The National Urban League is circulating a petition in support of that approach (which has been running in advertisements on NewsOne).
However, other civil rights groups, such as ColorOfChange.org, argue that if the FCC doesn’t regulate the Internet like a public utility “wealthy corporations will dominate the Internet by paying to prioritize their content online, and the voices of everyday folks could be drowned out or rendered practically invisible.”
Why the FCC is voting on this issue now
All of this is coming to a head now because nearly a year ago, a federal court struck down two rules from an order the FCC adopted in 2010, known as the Open Internet Order.
The rules barred broadband providers from blocking legal content, applications and services, and prohibited non-mobile broadband providers from unreasonably discriminating against legal Internet traffic. The commission argues that it wants to ensure that broadband providers do not give certain Internet traffic or businesses preferred treatment in ways that harm consumers or the economy.
As a result, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler has hashed out a new set of rules that he says will protect consumers and the economy while following the legal guidelines mapped out by the court. To that end, officials have been conducting a series of hearings to seek public input on the changes. So far feedback on the rules has generated nearly 4 million public comments.
Exactly how the new rules will look is unclear, but U.S. News notes that Wheeler hinted during a recent talk that the final version of the proposed rules would include enforcement like the commission uses in the telecom industry.
What all of the terms being bandied about mean
The DailyDot provides a list of terms you need to know ahead of the vote:
Net neutrality: When all data are treated equally in transit across a network such as the Internet. Under these circumstances, network administrators cannot block or hinder certain content or application.
Open Internet: Another term commonly used for net neutrality.
Internet service providers (ISPs): Companies that control the “last mile” of the network, or the actual wires and other infrastructure responsible for bringing the Internet to people’s homes, businesses, and mobile devices.
Broadband providers: Another term for high-speed ISPs.
Communications Act of 1934: Federal law that established the FCC as the regulatory body for communications. The law includes several sets of rules that communications companies must follow, depending on how they are categorized.
Title II: If reclassified as companies that provide a Telecommunications Service, ISPs could be regulated by the FCC under Title II of the Communications Act of 1934, which includes more than 100 pages of “common carrier” rules the commission could enforce on the companies.
Section 706: Two-paragraph clause in the Telecommunications Act of 1996. If the FCC uses Section 706 as the legal authority in attempt to reestablish net neutrality, it would allow the commission to regulate ISPs in attempt to “promote competition in the local telecommunications market” and “remove barriers to infrastructure investment.”
Telecommunications Act of 1996: The first major update to U.S. communication law since the Communications Act of 1934. The Telecommunications Act attempts to address the technologies that developed in the more than 60 years between laws. The law addressed the Internet, but does not address net neutrality.