On Tuesday, December 21, 2010, the FCC passed, by a vote of three to two, the Net Neutrality Act. After months of wrangling and inflammatory media coverage, it is finally done. What will this ultimately mean, if anything to the consumer? Strangely enough, not too much directly. The entire Act consists of only three rules and much like the “Three Rules of Robotics” by Issac Asimov , they are intended to act as agreed upon guidelines for the behavior of Internet Service Providers.
Intended to protect the interests of the consumer, the rules are posted on the FCC website. According to just about everyone, save for the agency itself, less the dissenting votes, and the major corporations that had a big say in the negotiations, the guidelines are far less benign than Mr. Asimov’s rules were.
So what is all the fuss about? Well, in simple form, the three rules are:
Transparency: All Service Providers must disclose any information related to network management practices in a sufficiently clear way to allow consumers to make informed choices, and for content providers to maintain Internet offerings.
No Blocking: Internet Service Providers may not block any lawful content or services; of course, this is subject to reasonable network management.
No Unreasonable Discrimination: Providers may not discriminate against any lawful network traffic and reasonable network management shall not constitute unreasonable discrimination.
Exceptions to the Rules
That is pretty much all there is. The press release goes on to define what constitutes “reasonable network management.” Its “official” definition is, well, reasonable. The big issue for most commentators had been the Mobile Broadband Provider exceptions.Originally, it was stated that mobile broadband network access would not be covered under net neutrality or any of its rules. The passed Act concludes the same and the FCC explains that it believes it to be appropriate to take steps on protecting mobile broadband Internet access. It further explained what Special Services were, which was also one of the exceptions to the original proposal as well. As the FCC now defines, those, Special Services constitute any service that offers an equivalent to broadband service or anything used to get around the rules. Specialized services are services that a provider offers directly over the “Last Mile” to the customer.
The subject of “Pay for Priority,” meaning discriminating against consumers who pay less for the same services, was one of the major issues raised. The statement from the FCC placed a ban on this “unreasonable discrimination.” Essentially, any service that constitutes “so called “Pay for Priority” arrangements involving fast lanes for some companies but not others are unlikely to be allowed,” according to the FCC Blog statement. This means that ISP’s will not be allowed to offer content providers preferential treatment on their networks related to bandwidth that goes directly to the consumers.
While some of these New Neutrality rules are clearly designed to address certain issues that have arisen with ISP’s and traffic shaping and billing mysteries, there appears to be little of the dark future that critics of the rules have previously painted. Most of the criticism arises from speculation regarding the exceptions for the Mobile Providers and Specialized Services issues and how corporations might use these exceptions to their advantage.
This advantage remains to be seen and with the growing power of the mobile market, it might not take too long for the first court challenges to be raised. House GOP members have been vocal in their commitment to fight against the regulations, but there is really no surprise there. Consumer groups have also come out against the rules. Michael J. Copps , one of the five voting members, said that he considered voting against the ruling but chose the better of two bad options. He also said that he would support a proposal by another member, Chair Julius Genachowski, which would redefine broadband as a telecom service to protect the rules for court challenges.
With all of the media hype and bluster over the last few months concerning how bad or restricting the rules were going to be when the Act finally did pass, the final result seems to be a little on the anti-climactic side. While the rules are simple enough and act as guidelines, they are certainly not as bad as anyone first thought, including myself.
Julius Genachowski , ” New Rules for an Open Internet ,” The Official Blog of the FCC
Isaac Asimov, “Asimov’s Three Rules of Robotics” The Unwritten Laws of Life