One of President Obama’s key campaign promises in 2008 was establishment of strong net neutrality rules for the Internet. Last week, the president’s FCC chairman said he delivered on that promise — though few agreed with that assessment. In fact, it seemed that virtually no one was happy with the result.
The new Internet access rules, approved along party lines by the FCC, prohibit network operators from limiting or blocking Internet traffic into U.S. homes. However, many feel they are riddled with the kind of loopholes that major corporations favor and do not extend to fast-growing wireless markets for smartphones and tablet computers.
The net neutrality debate seems to have resulted in a classic Washington solution — the kind that pleases no one on any side of the issue. Even the two Democratic commissioners who voted to approve the rules were unhappy and only reluctantly sided with FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski in the 3-2 vote.
The rules focused on an issue that often means different things to different people. In essence, it is supposed to require Internet service providers to give equal treatment to all legal Web content on their networks. But, as the old saying goes, the devil is in the details.
Republican members of Congress promised to negate the rules, while the telecom and cable companies will probably file lawsuits challenging the FCC’s authority to regulate the broadband market. Public interest advocates think the rules stop far short of ensuring free speech.
President Obama, who said the measure fulfilled his election campaign promise for net neutrality regulations, said the “decision will help preserve the free and open nature of the Internet while encouraging innovation, protecting consumer choice and defending free speech.”
After the vote, the “New York Times” called the new rules “net semi-neutrality.” Yes, it bans any outright blocking and any “unreasonable discrimination” of websites or applications by fixed-line broadband providers. However, the rules afford major wiggle room to wireless providers like AT&T and Verizon.
The rules require all providers to disclose what steps they plan to take to manage their networks. However, in a major break with open Internet advocates, the rules do not explicitly forbid “paid prioritization,” which would allow a business to pay an Internet provider for faster transmission of data.
This means broadband providers cannot block streaming videos from providers such as Netflix or slow purchases from retailers such as Amazon, but they can charge them additional fees for better delivery of content.
This is known as “paid prioritization”— long a major issue with net neutrality advocates. The prevention of a carrier’s charging higher rates for better access of content has been a core tenant of Internet fairness.
Also, in another highly controversial move, the rules mostly exempt wireless carriers from regulation. Wireless providers have increasingly become the main providers of Internet connections for smartphone and laptop users. The FCC justified its exemption of wireless broadband by noting that mobile technology is evolving quickly and that cellular networks have significant capacity limitations.
Skype, a voice-over-Internet service, will be among a narrow category of competing applications that cannot be blocked by a mobile service provider under the measure.
Genachowski said the rules balanced the debate between cable and telecom companies that opposed the rules and Internet giants such as Google and Skype that have lobbied for regulations.
“I reject both extremes in favor of a strong and sensible framework — one that protects Internet freedom and openness and promotes robust innovation and investment,” Genachowski said.
If the new rules withstand court scrutiny, they will go into effect early next year.