The net neutrality debate, Part I

Internet Service Providers (ISPs) are putting pressure on the FCC and Congress to abandon the current principle of treating all data on the Internet equally

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The controversy

Net neutrality is a vital, controversial issue that demands close attention by anyone who uses the Internet, i.e., all of us…  Long story short: Internet Service Providers (ISPs) are putting pressure on the FCC and Congress to abandon the current principle of treating all data on the Internet equally, with little or no differentiation for user or content. Instead, they strongly support a new framework that would include–

  • A ‘multi-level’ Internet, in which there are different charges and, potentially (though they deny it) even control of content for users, sites, platforms, and applications; and
  • Lower costs for those who can afford it, e.g., big companies, would pay more for better/faster service with the vast majority of individual users on a lower tier of speed/support.

Major ISPs argue that they would not compromise services in any way for the average user, despite the growing consensus of most experts of how things would play out if net neutrality were abandoned.

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Recent developments

The trigger for this unprecedented debate was a major court decision in January of this year that stripped the FCC of its power to enforce network neutrality protections. To put this in perspective, understand that–

  • This regulatory framework was in place for years–with telecom companies conforming to net neutrality standards–resulting both from formal and informal regulatory pressure.
  • Many are very concerned that it opens the door to telecom companies using technologies to monitor and even control data sent over their networks. –Why would they want to control content? For starters, to further their own political agendas and throttle those opposed to said agendas. Critics claim that his potentially could affect U.S. elections.

Things heated up again in May when former cable company lobbyist, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, proposed a ‘compromise’ regulatory framework. In fact, Wheeler had originally planned to unveil new net neutrality rules no later than this month. However, the FCC’s trial balloon briefing for major public and private stakeholders on the ‘compromise proposal’ didn’t go well.

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President Obama’s takes a clear stand

On November 10, President Obama came out strongly in support of maintaining an open Internet, urging the Federal Communications Commission to implement “the strongest possible rules” to protect it. As a result, the net neutrality debate will move forward well into 2015. Clearly, Wheeler is now “caught” between the wishes of the White House and overwhelming public support for net neutrality on the one hand, and the agenda of Internet service providers on the other.

In Part II of this blog, I’ll explore this issue at greater depth, with additional information, e.g., on why ISPs claim they need a new regulatory framework for the Internet.

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