Like many other people, I do a lot of searching on the internet, and my partner thoroughly enjoys watching Netflix movies. We have friends who have abandoned their cable television in our small Oregon coast town for watching programs via their computers. Yesterday was a big victory that prevents big business from slowing down downloads from the internet onto our computers. allows us to continue with our computer access.
Donald Trump’s outrageous comments about Muslims and the president monopolizing the media means that the net neutrality decision got little press when a three-judge panel of the DC District Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the people in the United States. The issue was the Federal Communication Commission’s (FCC) authority to regulate the internet as a “common carrier,” similar to telephone service and frequently called “net neutrality.” Huge corporations want to charge for higher speed and access on the internet, but the Washington, DC court said they may not do so.
As usual big companies may appeal, but this court ruling is significant. The court decision gives the FCC authority to regulate broadband service as a utility, much like telephone service, instead of a luxury. It applies equally to wired broadband providers like cable companies and mobile ones such as Verizon.
The struggle goes back about 15 years as consumer groups and internet companies have fought to keep the internet from being a corporate medium like cable television. Corporations such as Comcast and AT&T want unequal treatment for online traffic like Netflix and cute videos about animals. Without net neutrality, internet service providers can favor their own services and disadvantage all others, block sites and apps, and force video and other data services to pay extra for their “fast lanes.”
Robert Malcolm McDowell, appointed to the FCC by George W. Bush in 2006, fought unfettered public use of the internet until he left in 2013. Congress then dived into the fray with a bill written by corporations designed to strip FCC’s ability to set regulations. If that bill had passed, the FCC would be left with no responsibilities except to adjudicate disputes. Ambiguous terms in the proposed bill such as “specialized services” and “reasonable network management” created huge loopholes for corporations and failed to address newer technology. Despite the payments that the industry gave politicians, however, the bill failed. Instead, the FCC passed rules that reclassified the internet in “common carrier” service, the same category for telephone service, under Title II of the Communications Act.
The FCC Open Internet Order provides these protections to access and free speech on the net, according to the FCC news release:
No Blocking: broadband providers may not block access to legal content, applications, services, or non-harmful devices.
No Throttling: broadband providers may not impair or degrade lawful Internet traffic on the basis of content, applications, services, or non-harmful devices.
No Paid Prioritization: broadband providers may not favor some lawful Internet traffic over other lawful traffic in exchange for consideration of any kind—in other words, no “fast lanes.” This rule also bans ISPs from prioritizing content and services of their affiliates.
If an appeal from large broadband carriers takes the issue to the full DC Court of Appeals or the Supreme Court, the rules could still be struck down. The industry has huge financial power. For example, Comcast, which started as a cable TV provider, now owns Comcast Internet, NBC/MSNBC, Universal Pictures and other companies. Its $74.5 billion in sales during 2015 was an eight percent increase from the year before and gives them assets of more than $149 billion.
As Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) point out, Comcast provides internet content as well as services. “Comcast-Funded Website [Vox] Plugs Comcast-Owned TV Show [The Tonight Show] Promoting Comcast-Backed Trade Pact [Trans-Pacific Partnership].” Even “common carrier” regulations cannot prevent this situation. But at least they cannot discriminate against smaller sites and those with large bandwidths—at least as long as the court ruling isn’t overturn.
Until that time, internet can no longer ignore some former expectations when the FCC did not declare them telecommunications carriers. At this time, telephone companies must get consumers’ explicit consent before sharing their names, phone numbers, addresses, or other personal information with marketers. Internet providers have not been required to get consent, but a pending proposal at the FCC would seek to extend a similar set of expectations to broadband companies.
Incensed by the court ruling, a Senate committee, led by Republicans, voted today to weaken the FCC net neutrality rules. They voted to exempt small broadband providers from rules requiring them to provide their customers with information about network performance, network management practices, and other issues. The purpose of the rules is to give customers information about actual speed as compared to advertised speeds as well as potentially controversial congestion management practices.
Joshua Stager, policy counsel at the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute, said that the Senate bill “creates a needless loophole” in the net neutrality rules. He explained, “The transparency rules help ensure a level playing field for small businesses to compete in the online marketplace—which is why so many small businesses asked the FCC to create these rules in the first place.” Since the FCC’s 2015 rules over a year ago, GOP lawmakers have failed to pass over a dozen bills or amendments to weaken or kill the regulations. None so far has succeeded.
Two years ago, John Oliver provided a great segment on what net neutrality actually is and took on the GOP congressional members who opposed the ruling. One of these naysayers was Rep. Tom McClintock (R-CA), who described net neutrality as the idea that “the latest cat video is of equal importance to a teleconference consultation to a heart patient.” Oliver gave this wonderful response:
“You are misunderstanding what net neutrality is. Cat videos are part of the point. [The policy is about keeping internet service providers from] picking a choosing whose voices get heard, ensuring that the internet remains a democratic space for all messages. And that goes for cat videos, too.”
Oliver was so successful in awakening people to the importance of net neutrality that the tens of thousands of responses immediately crashed the “Comment” section of the FCC website. Millions of more comments followed, once the website was back up.
The conservatives are being very grumpy about the court decision, which indicates that it’s probably a very good idea. Thanks to the FCC, two of the three judges on the DC Circuit Court panel—and perhaps John Oliver–big business won’t be slowing my downloads, and huge corporations won’t be charging for faster speeds. At least for now.