A No-nonsense Guide to Net Neutrality




Internet neutrality and regulation is complicated. Part of the complexity of the issue is that it is an ongoing process and debate. We do not have the position of retrospect as we do with past debates over regulation. There is a lot within this subject that is still theoretical, a lot of “what ifs.” There are a lot of economics tied in with Internet regulation, and economics in general are hard for most non-economists to understand. Here, I attempt to tackle the complex issue for Evergreen students, faculty, and the community to be able to be part of the conversation and to possibly fill a void of coverage in mainstream news media.

The Federal Communications Commission is hard at work trying to apply restrictions on how Internet service providers regulate their networks. The FCC has fought with companies and superior courts over the last few years in their effort to regulate control of the transmission of Internet data.

Internet service companies argue that they should be able to manage their networks in the open market as they wish, including charging for better connections to users. The FCC argues that this could tip the scales in favor of wealthier companies. In January, the DC Court of Appeals ruled that the FCC has no legal right to apply those restrictions on network transmissions.

This provided the option for web service providers to allow content providers the ability to access consumers through a faster express lane for transmitting data. In February, the FCC said it would not seek an appeal of this decision, and began working on a new proposal of guidelines. At the same time, Comcast began bidding to purchase Time Warner Cable, which would link the two largest U.S. providers and give Comcast a bigger share of the television and Internet industry.

Rules of Internet Regulation

When talking about Internet regulations, the questions arise: who has rights and control of the Internet? How should corporations be able to manage Internet service? Will allowing companies to pay more for direct lines to consumers increase costs for users? Does internet service regulation have an impact on the information we receive? These are all part of the ongoing debate and answers are mostly theoretical.

Net neutrality is a general term to describe the issues that concern Internet management and regulation. “Neutrality” refers to the idea of keeping the web open for fair and equal access to content. The FCC web regulations are a driving force behind net neutrality, but the FCC refers to their restrictions as “Open Internet” rules.

[pullquote_left]“Neutrality” refers to the idea of keeping the web open for fair and equal access to content.[/pullquote_left]

The rules, created in 2008, are generated around the idea of innovation; the Internet should be free and open for anyone to access with equal traffic, so anyone can create content and information on the web. The FCC claims they want Internet to be a level field where consumers can make fair and informed decisions about what content they want to access and which services they want to use.

There are three basic rules outlined in the Open Internet guide: Internet providers must be transparent and provide information about how they manage their network, their performance, and commercial terms. Internet providers also cannot block legal content or services. The last rule is where most debate arises: Internet providers must not discriminate between legal net traffic.

Web service providers control the infrastructure that delivers content to users, so without Open Internet restrictions, they can regulate the choices of consumers, according to a 2010 article published in the “Journal of Management Information Systems.” This is possible because the “tube” that delivers the content has limited space. If certain content is prioritized over other content, it can delay other content.

In a few court cases over the last few years, brought by network companies against the FCC, courts ruled that the FCC does not have the rights or power to issue these restrictions on service providers. The courts have, however, solidified the FCC’s rights to demand transparency as well as to define whether Internet is a telecommunications service or an information service.

Telecommunications vs. Information Services

The 1996 Telecommunications Act removed previous restrictions on how many media outlets companies can own. As the Internet was still developing into the power it is today, the act made some efforts to create guidelines for the net. The act gave the FCC the right to determine whether the web was a telecommunications or information service.

In 2002, the FCC declared Internet as an information service. Telecommunications services transmit data, and information services process data. The Internet both transmits and processes data, but the FCC chose to label it as data processing. Telecommunications services include utilities such as electricity and telephone, which are essential for people to access. These services face more restrictions to more fairly serve the people, including restrictions on discriminating against service traffic.

If the FCC redefined the web as a telecommunications service, they could legally apply the Open Internet guidelines. The FCC decided in February not to seek this reclassification, but plan to rewrite their guidelines, citing a different part of the law, to apply to companies.

In February, service provider Comcast struck a deal with Netflix, the online video streaming content provider, that allows Netflix to pay Comcast directly for a faster, more stable connection. Comcast customers will have a stronger connection to Netflix. This deal was made possible by the court’s January ruling.

Outcomes of the deal are yet to be determined. Some people speculate that deals like this will eventually pass more costs onto the consumers. Some of the same people believe other content will suffer problems and restrictions, especially if more companies start making similar deals.

Illustration by RUBY THOMPSON

Illustration by RUBY THOMPSON