New U.S. net neutrality rules were approved by the Federal Communications Commission in a 3-2 vote on Feb. 26 as expected, creating new FCC powers that will allow the agency to regulate the Internet as a public utility and causing critics to quickly promise to take legal actions against the decision.
In a five-page statement, the FCC said that the new rules were guided by three principles that the nation’s broadband networks “must be fast, fair and open,” which came from input received from more than 4 million Americans last year during public comment periods.
The new regulations will also “set sustainable rules of the roads that will protect free expression and innovation on the Internet and promote investment in the nation’s broadband networks,” the agency said. Two past attempts by the FCC to set rules for Internet use into the future were struck down by courts, but the latest attempt resolves the legal issues that eventually undermined those attempts, the agency said.
A huge provision of the new rules is that broadband Internet access will be reclassified as a public utility under Title II of the U.S. Communications Act, which the agency says will better enable it to protect the Internet for all users, from consumers to businesses to government and education. Title II of the Communications Act gives the FCC the power to regulate communications in the United States. Title II was originally intended to make sure that telephone companies provided service to anyone in their coverage area.
The new rules also include key provisions that broadband providers cannot block access to legal content, applications and services, nor can they “throttle,” or slow up, access to lawful Internet traffic, according to the FCC. Also prohibited under the new rules is paid prioritization in which broadband providers could favor some lawful Internet traffic over other lawful traffic in exchange for extra payments, essentially prohibiting so-called “fast lanes” to the highest bidders.
“I am incredibly proud of the process the Commission has run in developing today’s historic open Internet protections,” Tom Wheeler, the chairman of the FCC, said in a statement. “I say that not just as the head of this agency, but as a U.S. citizen. Today’s Open Internet Order is a shining example of American democracy at work.”
One of the key reasons for the new rules, Wheeler said, is that it will prevent broadband Internet providers from prioritizing their interests above the interests of their users. “Our challenge is to achieve two equally important goals: ensure incentives for private investment in broadband infrastructure so the U.S. has world-leading networks and ensure that those networks are fast, fair, and open for all Americans,” he said. “The Open Internet Order achieves those goals, giving consumers, innovators, and entrepreneurs the protections they deserve, while providing certainty for broadband providers and the online marketplace.”
The new rules will now mean “there will be basic ground rules and a referee on the field to enforce them,” said Wheeler. “If an action hurts consumers, competition, or innovation, the FCC will have the authority to throw the flag.”
What the new rules will not mean, he said, are new “utility style” regulations imposed on broadband providers by the agency. “We forbear from sections of Title II that pose a meaningful threat to network investment, and over 700 provisions of the FCC’s rules. That means no rate regulation, no filing of tariffs, and no network unbundling. During the 22 years that wireless voice has been regulated under a light-touch Title II like we propose today, there has never been concern about the ability of wireless companies to price competitively, flexibly, or quickly, or their ability to achieve a return on their investment.”
Critics quickly began issuing statements against the new rules even before the official FCC vote was taken on Feb. 26.
Gary Shapiro, the president and CEO of the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA), said in a statement that the FCC’s Title II reclassification for broadband providers “takes us in the wrong direction on the information superhighway,” which is more heavy-handed than the “light regulatory regime that strikes the appropriate balance among fostering innovation, promoting competition and maintaining broad access to and across the Internet.”
Instead, the FCC has “placed regulatory shackles and new legal risks on the Internet and those who use this technological marvel to create critical new services, products and jobs,” Shapiro said. “The end result for consumers: less choice, higher costs and reduced innovation.”
Mike Montgomery, the executive director of CALinnovates, a group that fosters relationships between government leaders and technology and startup communities, said in a statement that the new rules will do more to inspire lawsuits than they will to make effective changes for users.
“The loud sound coming from Washington today is resounding cheers from the lawyers, lobbyists and fundraising groups that will gain from today’s FCC ruling for years to come,” Montgomery said. “There will be a rush to the courtroom, which will take years to sort out. Congress must step in and provide a solution that affirms the principles of net neutrality but does so with modern legislation that reflects 21st Century technology. The next billion we spend should be on innovation, not lawsuits.”
FCC Passes New Net Neutrality Rules, Awaits Expected Legal Challenges
Lawsuits based on the new rules are a certainty, which will continue to keep the issues alive in the courts, likely for years to come.
Supporters had a very different take, including Courtney Young, the president of the American Library Association. “America’s libraries collect, create and disseminate essential information to the public over the Internet, and ensure our users are able to access the Internet and create and distribute their own digital content and applications,” Young said in a statement. “Network neutrality is essential to meeting our mission in serving America’s communities. Today’s FCC vote in favor of strong, enforceable net neutrality rules is a win for students, creators, researchers and learners of all ages.”
Anna Galland, the executive director of MoveOn.org Civic Action, in a statement today called the FCC decision “an unequivocal victory for the millions of Americans who came together to show that people power can trump the power of corporate giants like Comcast and Verizon. The plan released today is real Net Neutrality—by classifying the Internet as a public good using Title II, the FCC is using the simplest, most legally sound framework for protecting Internet users everywhere and maintaining the web as an equal playing field for all.”
Dennis Yang, the CEO of Udemy.com, an online learning vendor, said in a statement that he is “thrilled by today’s vote by the FCC to support a free and open Internet. Net neutrality ensures Internet-based companies and ventures of all kinds will be able to compete, [which is] a profound benefit to society. Companies like Udemy are dependent upon the fastest possible Internet speeds to power a great experience for our users and we join the chorus of Americans congratulating the FCC on its decision to apply the same values that make America great to the Internet: liberty and fairness.”
For months, the FCC’s Wheeler had been talking publicly about the changes he envisioned for the Internet of the future, including improved regulation and controls that will ensure the freedom and openness of its operation and infrastructure for decades to come.
The issue of net neutrality has been a hotbed for several years, with proponents and opponents arguing their positions and bashing the opposition verbally in public forums and discussions.
In September 2014, the FCC announced that it had received a record 3 million comments about proposed rules for net neutrality by a Sept. 15 deadline.
In November 2014, it appeared that Wheeler and President Obama had some differences of opinion about net neutrality, according to an earlier eWEEK story. Instead of Obama’s more strongly worded proposal, Wheeler preferred a more subtle approach that would also address the concerns of the companies that provide Internet access to millions of Americans. Obama had earlier said that he wanted to see the FCC adopt Title II as a way to include ISPs in existing neutrality regulations.
In October 2014, officials from AT&T, Comcast and Verizon told U.S. leaders that they do not plan to offer faster Internet access, or so-called “fast lanes,” to content producers who are willing to pay more to get their messages out in front of competitors’ transmissions, according to an earlier eWEEK story.