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Net neutrality rules passed, but we don't know how it works yet

FCC sharply divided on party lines. Chairman Wheeler broke the tie.

FCC Net Neutrality hearing
At an FCC hearing in Washington on Feb. 26, 2015, the agency approved Chairman Tom Wheeler's proposed "net neutrality" rules, regulating broadband providers more heavily than in the past and restricting their power to control download speeds on the web. Credit: REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

No one outside of the FCC has seen the 317-page net neutrality order. But we do know that net neutrality will come from the FCC regulating the internet like a utility. The FCC Chairman's vote was broadcast on CSPAN, deciding three to two in favor of the order.

How this will be implemented won't be clear, not even after the order is released. Reading the FCC order isn't really possible for most people because reading and interpreting Title II and Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act ranks on the boring scale with watching paint dry. The public will need to filter non-partisan independent opinion about the details of the order from the partisan controversy that will follow this contentious vote.

But Netflix expressed its pleasure with the vote, stating in a press release that:

"The net neutrality debate is about who picks winners and losers online: Internet service providers or consumers. Today, the FCC settled it: Consumers win."

Dissenting Republican Commissioners Michael O'Rielly and Ajut Pai condemned the order, claiming it to be a secret Obama administration plot to regulate the internet, increase costs to consumers, and reduce investment by ISPs.

Even though Republican Commissioners dissented, Sprint, T-Mobile, Frontier Communications, Google Fiber, and hundreds of smaller telephone ISPs supported regulating the internet under Title II. Leading up to today's vote, Cablevision CEO James Dolan told the Wall Street Journal that he didn't think that Wheeler's proposed net neutrality plan would affect his company. AT&T, Comcast, and Verizon are likely to feel the most effects of the order.

Many have speculated about Chairman Tom Wheeler's position on net neutrality and allegiance because he previously led the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association industry trade group. Wheeler dispelled any of these questions and firmly stated his net neutrality allegiance with his remarks today. A few quotes from his prepared speech unequivocally make clear his position on net neutrality.

"Those 4 million public comments also illustrate the importance of an open and unfettered network, the role it plays as a core of free expression and democratic principles…No one, whether government or corporate, should control free and open access to the internet...

It's [the internet is] simply too important to be left without rules and a referee on the field...

The internet has replaced the functions of the telephone and the post office, redefined commerce and entertainment… the internet is the ultimate vehicle for free expression.

The internet is just too important to allow broadband providers to be the ones making the rules…

This proposal has been described by one opponent [Pai] as 'a secret plan to regulate the internet.' Nonsense! This is no more a plan to regulate the internet than the first amendment is a plan to regulate the free speech. They both stand for the same concept, openness, expression, and an absence of gate keepers telling people where they can go, what they can do, and what they can think… 

Broadband access providers have the technical ability and economic incentive to impose restrictions on the internet – the DC circuit court in its decision remanded this to us 'broadband providers represent a threat to internet openness and could act in ways that would ultimately inhibit the speed and extent of future internet deployment… this will not come to pass.'"

Now the FCC can ban fast lanes and blocking so that consumers get what they pay for – unfettered access to any legal content, and the ability for innovators to introduce new products without asking anyone's permission. The order includes a general conduct rule that prevents ISPs from using technical innovation to unreasonably interfere with consumers and content providers should they develop novel new threats to net neutrality that are not categorized as either fast lanes or blocking. Wheeler called these two parts of the order a "regulatory one two punch."

Wheeler concluded his speech with an explanation of the extensive scope of the FCC's internet jurisdiction to include not only the wired but the mobile internet, which now accounts for the majority of internet access. This jurisdiction extends beyond the last-mile access network to include the points of interconnection throughout the internet.

Utility-like regulation was expected, and the vote in favor of regulation was also predicted. What was completely unexpected was Chairman Wheeler's strong conviction in favor of regulating net neutrality – so potently tied to free speech.

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