• United States
Jon Gold
Senior Writer

FAQ: The FCC’s Net Neutrality vote, for the IT crowd

Feb 23, 20156 mins

The FCC will vote Thursday on new broadband regulations that some in the telecom industry hate.

The FCC on Thursday, Feb. 26 is set to vote on new broadband regulations that would require ISPs to practice Network Neutrality.  Here’s the lowdown on this hot political and technical topic:

Before you start, you know that I know what Net Neutrality is already, right?

Of course, you work in IT, so I expected that was the case. While others might not be aware that the term is thought to have been coined in 2003 by Columbia law professor Tim Wu – still one of the most vocal proponents of Net Neutrality – no such gap exists in your knowledge.

And just as obviously, you’re aware that the basic principle of Net Neutrality is that Internet service providers should not be allowed to discriminate among the different types of traffic that they carry – that is to say, not slowing or blocking legal traffic, nor charging special fees for certain types of traffic.

Gee, that was sneaky. I almost didn’t see what you did there.

You’re kind of cranky for a framing device.

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All right, fine – so where do we stand right now?

It’s sort of unclear, as it happens. The country’s biggest ISPs have successfully been able to argue in court that they’re not required to adhere to Net Neutrality principles, in large part because the FCC’s rulemaking on the subject has been sort of haphazard – an unwillingness to regulate broadband providers under Title II of the Communications Act of 1934 let Verizon win a landmark case in 2014 that struck down most official protections for Net Neutrality.

Well, that’s it, then. Why are we still talking about this?

Not so fast. After the D.C. Circuit Court decision I just mentioned, the FCC proposed new rules for Net Neutrality, which were much less strict than the 2010 rules the court struck down, and clearly left the door open for the telecoms to offer paid prioritization – in essence, making it legal for Comcast et. al. to charge content and data service providers like Netflix or Google special fees for making sure their traffic gets through to consumers smoothly. (With the obvious corollary that the traffic won’t get through smoothly unless the fee is paid.)

So one big company gets to hold up another big company for a big chunk of change. And?

Well, it turns out that this would kind of ruin the Internet.

How would we tell?

You’re so funny. Pro-Net Neutrality types say that paid prioritization would split the Internet into individual fiefdoms, each controlled by a single ISP. Since that ISP would have the ability to pick and choose the traffic it wanted to carry, the result would be that the only services that would work reliably on a given network would be the ones that have paid big bucks to be the official partners.

Got a lot of things running in EC2? If Amazon hasn’t paid a big wad of cash to your ISP, traffic running back and forth between your cloud instances will go slowly, if it moves at all. Don’t like it? Switch cloud providers to the one that paid up. Don’t want to use them? Then either switch ISPs or go sit on it.

That seems a little alarmist.

Maybe “ruining the Internet” is a bit strong, but there’s little question that big telecoms are thinking along precisely these lines. Netflix openly used the words “extortion” and “ransom” to describe Comcast’s successful efforts to chisel a bunch of money out of the video streaming service earlier in 2014, and there’s no earthly reason to suppose that the ISPs wouldn’t use similar tactics in their dealings with, say, Amazon and Google.

Sure, it would be gigantically unpopular, but what other option would those companies have? If major services simply didn’t work right on networks that a huge proportion of American businesses use to get online, who would ever use them?

So this is why the whole Internet seems like it’s flipping out.

Exactly. The FCC proposal that would have allowed for paid prioritization – you probably heard a lot of talk about “fast lanes” – sparked a bonfire of outrage from nearly (but not absolutely) everyone who wasn’t employed by an ISP. Big companies that provide services over the Internet, watchdog groups like the EFF and media properties like Reddit all loudly criticized the FCC’s proposal. 

I bet the telecoms see things a bit differently.

Well, yes. The telecoms like to talk up the idea of fast lanes while simultaneously insisting that this wouldn’t slow anybody else’s traffic down. Paid prioritization, the industry insists, would let them invest more in infrastructure, and offer more services for innovative businesses to take advantage of.

Moreover, the telcos say, the Internet has been largely unregulated since its inception and that doesn’t seem to have hurt it. Imposing new rules would hamstring the industry’s ability to innovate, and increase the U.S. government’s control over the Internet, interfere with the operation of a free market, drive prices up, and in the end, make services worse.

OK, so it’s the telecom companies vs. almost everyone else, and the telecom companies have already won.

Not just yet – in fact, the telecoms may be just about to take a big loss on Thursday, when the FCC meets to vote on amended rules that would, finally, reclassify broadband providers under Title II.

Remind me what the big deal is about Title II?

If the FCC decides to regulate broadband providers via Title II of the Communications Act of 1934, that means they’re treated as common carriers, and that the FCC can apply any of the numerous sections in Title II to the ISPs – including the one that bans paid prioritization.

And the FCC is going for it?

Yep – after a bit of prompting from President Obama, the FCC came up with new draft rules, which it looks like it’s going to adopt at its big meeting on Thursday, that will reclassify broadband providers as common carriers.

I bet the carriers aren’t happy.

Oh, they’re very unhappy indeed, and when they’re unhappy, they file lawsuits – AT&T has already vowed to sue if Title II happens, and the whole thing will almost certainly become a gigantic legal battleground after the fact. The Stalingrad of regulatory litigation, if you will.