In a split vote, the Federal Communications Commission approved a new net neutrality measure that would ban fast lanes and re-label broadband as a utility similar to water, gas, and electricity.
“Today history is being made by a majority of this Commission as we vote for a fast, fair and open Internet,” Chairman Thomas Wheeler said of the 3-to-2 Commission vote along party lines. “The action that we take today is an irrefutable reflection of the principle that no one—whether government or corporate—should control free open access to the Internet.”
While the full text of the regulation has not been published, Wheeler promised three “bright line” rules for the new regulations, which reclassify broadband Internet as a telecommunications service rather than an information service under Title II of the Communications Act: (1) no paid prioritization favoring some Web sites over others, (2) no throttling of Internet traffic, and (3) no blocking of access to legal content.
Since the FCC’s authority will extend to mobile networks as well under the new regulations, privacy advocates have expressed their enthusiasm that the shift will also provide the Commission with greater oversight of the privacy practices of ISPs.
The split vote over the new measure also prompted a reaction from industry and lawmakers. While praised by consumer advocates and hailed by Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) as “our country’s Declaration of Innovation,” the move was decried by conservatives and industry members. In addition to what seems to be inevitable litigation, one lawmaker elected to challenge the new regulations via legislation. The Internet Freedom Act, put forth by Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), specifies that the FCC’s order “shall have no force or effect” and prohibits the Commission from reissuing the order.
The battle over net neutrality has raged for years. Each of the Commission’s prior two attempts at regulation resulted in courthouse action. In a most recent effort the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals found that the FCC exceeded its authority and struck down the regulation in January 2014.
When the agency indicated it was considering new regulations that would allow for “fast lanes” where Internet service providers afford certain companies preferential treatment when they pay for faster service, a record-setting number of comments were filed on the proposal, the majority of which were in opposition.
Even President Barack Obama chimed in, calling on the FCC to eliminate the possibility of fast lanes by reclassifying broadband service as a utility. Chairman Wheeler reversed course and announced his intention to reclassify broadband in new regulations in order to provide “the strongest open Internet protections” possible.
To read the FCC’s press release about the new regulations, as well as the individual statements by all five Commissioners, click here.
To read the Internet Freedom Act, click here.
Why it matters: Chairman Wheeler said the “Internet is simply too important to allow broadband providers to be making the rules,” adding that the Web has “replaced the functions of the telephone and the Post Office,” and has redefined both commerce and entertainment. “The Internet is the ultimate vehicle for free expression,” he added. The regulations will take effect 60 days after publication in the Federal Register. A legal challenge to the regs seems to be a foregone conclusion. The only question that remains is who will file the suit and when.