National Beat Reporter
The Federal Communications Commission voted in favor of new net neutrality rules that would regulate the Internet like a public utility. The five-person commission voted 3-2 on Feb. 26, voting along party lines with dissenting votes coming from the two Republicans on the Commission. The vote comes as a huge win for net neutrality advocates and President Obama who, in November, publicly expressed his support for a free and open Internet and called on the FCC to adopt net neutrality rules.
Net neutrality is the idea that all traffic on the web should be treated equally by all companies that provide access to it, and not providing faster or specialized speeds for companies that can afford to pay for it.
“The action that we take today is an irrefutable reflection of the principle that no one, whether government or corporate, should control free and open access to the Internet,” said FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler.
The decision by the FCC has inspired outrage from major broadband companies and Republicans in both Congress and the FCC. Verizon released a statement in Morse code against the decision, poking fun at what it believed to be outdated regulations designed for old phone service monopolies (more on that later). Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) once tweeted that net neutrality was “Obamacare for the Internet,” after Obama announced his support for open Internet rules.
FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai, a Republican, said, “The Commission’s decision to adopt President Obama’s plan marks a monumental shift toward government control of the Internet. It gives the FCC the power to micromanage virtually every aspect of how the Internet works.”
Wheeler dismissed these claims as false, stating that he will take a light approach and will not regulate prices.
So if the FCC, an independent agency, did not vote to pass a law, or place actual limits on companies that provide broadband service, or raise or lower prices, what exactly did they vote for?
The FCC voted to reclassify high-speed Internet service as a telecommunications service, rather than an information service, under Title II of the 1934 Communications Act. This classification means that Internet service will be treated as a public utility, much like phone service is today.
In the 1930s, American Telephone and Telegraph (AT&T) held a near monopoly on phone service. Due to the incredibly high demand for this new technology, the monopoly affected big businesses such as banks, importers, exporters, factories, and just about any business that required fast and efficient communication–which is pretty much every business. These businesses found themselves at the mercy of AT&T, who would shift prices according to demand. Like railroads, bridges, and ferries decades prior, phone service providers found themselves working with a technology that had become essential to business, and that all individuals and small businesses eventually needed if they wanted to compete in a changing economy.
To keep telecommunications companies from implementing unfair pricing and discriminating against or in favor of certain companies, the 1934 Communications Act was passed, and it regulated phone service as a common carrier under a part of the act called Title II. A common carrier is basically any business that provides a service that is considered so tied to the public good or the workings of an economy that it is required to treat all users equally. These same common carrier rules will now be applied to Internet service providers (ISPs).
If the FCC vote were to go the opposite way, and Internet access was not to be treated as a public utility, then we would probably begin to see ISPs charging Internet companies like Netflix or Amazon an extra fee to stream their content at a faster speed, like paying an extra toll to take an express lane. This inhibits smaller streaming services or online shops that are competing with Netflix and Amazon and would not be able to afford the extra fee.
Today, the Internet has gone the way of the telephone, becoming the main tool for social interaction, commerce, mail, and much more. The vote by the FCC demonstrates a shift in the way the Internet functions in our society by legally recognizing it as the essential resource that it is, as essential as the phone, water, and electricity. However, some broadband companies like Verizon have expressed disagreement with the decision and intend on challenging the FCC in court—an indication that the fight for net neutrality might not be over just yet.