The US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has adopted rules on internet governance to support net neutrality and the open internet, and protect freedom of expression and innovation.
The term net neutrality refers to the idea that all packets of data moving around the internet should be treated exactly the same.
Some internet service providers (ISPs) want to have the power to charge internet companies and users based on how much usage they make of the underlying network infrastructure.
Net neutrality advocates fear that, if this were allowed, it would lead to the creation of a two-tier internet where data traffic flows are controlled and regulated based on one’s ability to pay.
They believe this will stifle innovation, start-up culture and, most importantly, freedom of speech and expression.
The close three to two FCC vote came weeks after commission head Tom Wheeler U-turned and set out new proposals. Wheeler spoke in favour of net neutrality, saying: “The internet must be fast, fair and open.”
It comes after a surge in public interest in net neutrality in the US – four million people participated in the consultation – and a wave of protest by high-profile internet-based firms, including Twitter and Netflix.
The FCC said it had long been committed to protecting and promoting net neutrality, but previous attempts to implement regulation had been struck down by the courts.
Read more about net neutrality
- In the UK, ISPs EE, Virgin Media and Vodafone recently signed up to the Open Internet Code, a voluntary code of practice designed to support the open internet.
- In autumn 2014 US president Barack Obama came out in support of net neutrality, saying open access should be seen as a basic right.
- Last September internet companies including Twitter and Netflix joined a slowdown protest against US plans to allow internet service providers (ISPs) to charge extra for prioritised network access
Reclassification of broadband
At the core of the FCC’s ruling – the Open Internet Order – is one simple change; the reclassification of broadband internet access as a telecommunications service under Title II of the Communications Act.
This means the internet will now be afforded the same protections that have historically ensured telephone networks remain open in the US.
The Open Internet Order – which covers both fixed and mobile internet access – contains three key provisions:
- No blocking: ISPs are not allowed to block access to legal content, apps, services or non-harmful devices;
- No throttling: ISPs are not allowed to “impair or degrade” legal internet traffic on the basis of such criteria as content, apps, services or non-harmful devices;
- No paid priority: ISPs are not allowed to favour some legal internet traffic over other kinds in exchange for money, and are banned from giving their own content and services, and that of their affiliates, priority.
The FCC said that its order established that ISPs could not “unreasonable interfere with or unreasonably disadvantage” the ability of consumers or businesses to do what they liked within the law, on whatever device they chose to.
It also ensures that the FCC will have the relevant legal powers to address any breaches of the rules in the future.
However, it does also allow ISPs to engage in reasonable network management, recognising their need to manage technical and engineering work on their networks.
Support and dissent
Proponents of net neutrality were quick to voice their approval of the FCC’s ruling, notably President Obama, who described it as “great news” on Twitter.
In a statement, Microsoft said: “We applaud the FCC’s decision to preserve the fundamentally open nature of the internet and look forward to reading the order and rules.”
But a number of prominent Republicans spoke up against the ruling in an open letter to the FCC. Bob Goodlatte, chair of the House Committee on the Judiciary, said the rules were “the most oppressive and backward regulatory option possible” and warned that it endangered the effectiveness of anti-trust enforcement.
In a lengthy polemic, Goodlatte accused the FCC of bowing to president Barack Obama’s opinions on the matter and called into question the agency’s independence from the White House.
He claimed the FCC’s U-turn in favour of net neutrality meant there was a “shadow FCC” conspiracy at the White House, its agenda forced on the FCC by Obama following the 2014 mid-term elections, which Obama lost.
Goodlatte threatened to introduce legislation to restrict the FCC’s ability to regulate the internet.
Verizon also lashed out against the FCC, accusing it of imposing “1930s rules” on the internet.