News Feature | July 22, 2014

What is the future of Net Neutrality?

By Christine Kern

Net Neutrality

The principle of Net Neutrality has recently come under direct attack and it continues to divide the nation’s lawmakers

On May 15, the Federal Communications Commission — whose chairman, Tom Wheeler, was formerly a leading lobbyist for the telecommunications industry — proposed troubling new rules: Internet service providers could split the flow of traffic into tiers, by offering priority treatment to big corporations who would pay higher fees. That would mean a fast lane for the rich and a dirt road for others, harming small businesses and users.

Meanwhile, telecom behemoths turn huge profits that increase their leverage. Through aggressive lobbying, they have managed to limit competition in 20 states. This has happened while the F.C.C. has asked the public to give their thoughts on the proposed new rules. More than 200,000 people have already done so and comments are still being accepted.

In response to these new rules, Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Representative Doris Matsui (D-CA) filed bills in their respective chambers that would ban so-called paid prioritization — deals similar to the recent agreement that allows Netflix to connect directly to Comcast’s system to avoid network congestion. The legislators say the bill would “help prevent the creation of a two-tiered Internet system, ensuring start-ups and entrepreneurs have access to the marketplace and ensuring consumers can access all content equally.”

The move by the F.C.C. is significant because it has begun an investigation of Internet service providers at the same time that it is trying to define whether it has jurisdiction over their businesses. There is no guarantee that the commission has the power to do anything because there are currently no rules in place to enforce net neutrality. Two earlier attempts by the F.C.C. to forge rules were thrown out by an appeals court. The agency has managed to get Internet service providers to agree to abide by net neutrality. But the deal between Netflix and Comcast, struck in Feb, has opened the commission to criticism that it is not enforcing net neutrality principles. Even Netflix itself, after agreeing to pay Comcast, objected to the terms of the agreement, asserting that it should not have to pay to stream its video content to its customers.

Interestingly, however, while the Democrats are pushing to maintain net neutrality, only one in five “likely voters” in America support the idea, according to a new poll by Rasmussen. 54 percent of respondents are outright opposed to regulation and 25 percent are not certain. The numbers become starker when split down political lines. While Republicans and unaffiliated voters overwhelmingly believe that free market competition is better than regulation in protecting Internet users, 46 percent of Democrats support regulation.

However, it is unclear how well most voters understand what net neutrality actually is. Asked how closely they have been following stories about net neutrality, only 20 percent say they are following news of the net neutrality regulations “very closely,” with 35 percent saying they're following it “somewhat closely.” And, even though most Americans do not favor FCC regulation of the web, 55 percent do continue to support the FCC's regulation of radio and TV.

Meanwhile, “Americans are speaking loud and clear,” Leahy says. “They want an Internet that is a platform for free expression and innovation, where the best ideas and services can reach consumers based on merit rather than based on a financial relationship with a broadband provider.”

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