Americans, rejoice: the FCC has just released its finalized “Open Internet” rules, making net neutrality the law of the land as of November 20, 2011. Since they were first introduced nearly a year ago, the rules have generated some considerable backlash among broadband internet providers—Verizon and MetroPCS have already sued to block net neutrality, although that lawsuit was tossed out for being filed way too far in advance. Expect more legal action in the near future, after the rules are formally published tomorrow.
So what, then, does net neutrality mean for you as a consumer? Are the provisions set forth by the FCC really in your interest, or are they merely a stop-gap to aid corporations and shut up advocates? The full text of the Open Internet rules can be found here, but here are a few of the more important points.
A person engaged in the provision of fixed broadband Internet access service, insofar as such person is so engaged, shall not block lawful content, applications, services, or nonharmful devices, subject to reasonable network management (44)
Translation: ISPs are prohibited from selectively blocking (censoring) content. This point is pretty straightforward, and pretty important. There have been issues with ISPs blocking popular services in favor of forcing customers to use their own (inferior) alternatives. This rule puts a stop to that practice.
A person engaged in the provision of fixed broadband Internet access service, insofar as such person is so engaged, shall not unreasonably discriminate in transmitting lawful network traffic over a consumer’s broadband Internet access service. Reasonable network management shall not constitute unreasonable discrimination (46)
Translation: This one’s a bit more complicated and multi-faceted, as there’s several parts to what the FCC terms “unreasonable discrimination,” some of which many may not agree with. The purpose of this restriction, the FCC says, is to maximize the control that end users have over the traffic they want to see.
Firstly, the FCC states that “discrimination,” or the uneven distribution of bandwidth or content, is more likely to be accepted by consumers if providers are wholly transparent about discriminatory practices. Basically, the FCC will allow selective prioritization (or “enhancement”) for certain content if that’s what the consumer chooses, so long as there are even-playing-field alternatives. Tiered plans are apparently here to stay, as the FCC considers it unfair for “lighter end users of the network to subsidize heavier end users” (48).
This provision also institutes what the FCC calls “use-agnostic discrimination,” which means that the ISP can vary bandwidth to individual end-uses depending on those individuals’ prior usage. This is in line with the current ISP fad of throttling high-volume users and may incite backlash from consumers, depending on the severity of the “discrimination.”
Importantly, though, the prohibition of action that “impairs free expression” means that ISPs can’t slow traffic to sites that are politically misaligned with them or individuals who are critical of the corporation. Although this hasn’t been as prevalent of an issue in the past, it is nonetheless a very good safeguard to have. Other restrictions prevent “pay for priority,” a practice that strangles small sites and upstart businesses.
A network management practice is reasonable if it is appropriate and tailored to achieving a legitimate network management purpose, taking into account the particular network architecture and technology of the broadband Internet access service. (55)
Translation: ISPs are allowed to take action against traffic that is harmful to the network itself or to end users as well as to filter content as instructed by end users. This basically states that ISPs can provide parental controls and other such options. Such options should always be opt-in or opt-out, and the tools used should be periodically evaluated so as not to interfere with legitimate traffic.
Mobile broadband presents special considerations that suggest differences in how and when open Internet protections should apply. Mobile broadband is an earlier-stage platform than fixed broadband, and it is rapidly evolving. (61)
Translation: Mobile networks are not bound by the majority of these rules. They still have the ability to discriminate to an extent and even block applications, although the FCC still applies “certain of the open Internet rules, requiring compliance with the transparency rule and a basic no-blocking rule.” Only time will tell if other regulations will come to the world of mobile networks.
Again, the full text can be found here, if you want every detail about the FCC’s decisions. Suffice it to say that although their new regulations don’t leave us 100% satisfied, we’re nonetheless grateful for these first steps. Although it will undoubtedly be met with considerable resistance from the corporate side, the day when these rulings become law can’t come soon enough. Don’t bank on the 20th of November, though.