Net Neutrality Measures Give FCC a New Set of Teeth

Nearly a year after the U.S. Federal Communications Commission’s net neutrality rules were approved, the controversial measures were published Friday and are set to go into effect Nov. 20.

The heavily debated measures were approved in December of 2010.

The rules are intended to protect consumers by ensuring that everyone has equal access to the Web. The three basic components are transparency from providers; a ban on blocking sites, applications and services; and a ban on unreasonable discrimination.

Advocates for the laws believe that all websites should have the same loading time, so a corporate-backed commerce site such as eBay shouldn’t be able to pay to have a faster loading time than anyone else. After deliberation, it was decided that it was acceptable to slow down a network at certain busy times, but it will be forbidden to block a certain site, such as an entertainment streaming site, that devours bandwidth.

If the FCC suspects that a provider is unfairly or inappropriately managing a network, starting on Nov. 20, it has the power to pursue an investigation or demand transparency from the company.

Consumer Experience Still Steady

Though the rule aren’t officially set in place until November, many providers have been operating under the regulations since the measures were first approved.

“The Internet carriers have largely been abiding by open Internet principles since the rules were announced … they have been doing this because they know they are under very close scrutiny. We hope consumers won’t see much of a difference,” Art Brodsky, communications director at public interest advocacy group Public Knowledge, told the E-Commerce Times.

Consumers, then, likely won’t notice a dramatic change in their Internet experiences on Nov. 20, even though their providers will be under much higher official scrutiny starting that day.

“What is different is that while the rules are in force, if there is an issue, the FCC can enforce the rules, which apply to the wired Internet and less so to the wireless side,” said Brodsky.

It’s still unknown whether consumers will see a difference in wireless use. The rules differentiate between fixed broadband, such as cable or DSL, and mobile broadband, such as the connection on a smartphone over cellular data networks.

“The current rules, while useful in some respects, fall far short of the consumer protections needed, particularly in the wireless space,” said Meinrath.

Whether or not mobile connections should face the same scrutiny is still hotly debated. On one side, consumer activists warn that without the rules — and especially since the wired Internet is under tougher watch — wireless carriers will run wild with throttling services or block specific bandwidth-sucking sites.

“Wireless users could be subject to to more intrusion from the wireless carriers. We will have to wait and see,” said Brodsky.

The carriers, though, insist that the tighter competition in their market forces them to play by the same rules as fixed broadband networks.

Even though consumers might not notice bold changes when venturing online two months from now, the debate between differences in broadband connections and the possibility of legal challenges is likely to continue.

Differing Opinions

The regulations were met with dismay by lawmakers such as Senators Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) and Kay Bailey Hutchinson (R-Tex.), a ranking member of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. They, along with certain other Republican members of Congress, view the measures as over-regulation designed to correct a nonexistent problem and have vowed to push for a Senate vote this fall that would overturn the measures.

Corporate interests are at stake as well. Wireless providers Verizon and MetroPCS both filed suit against the rules as soon as they were approved, but since they hadn’t gone into effect yet, the legal cases were thrown out. When the measures are officially in place, it’s expected that at least one of the companies will launch a suit again.

“I expect these rules to be legally challenged immediately and they will have a difficult time withstanding judicial review. Through its own convoluted legal contortions, the FCC has left itself on incredibly shaky ground to defend itself,” Sascha Meinrath, director of the Open Technology Initiative at The New America Foundation, told the E-Commerce Times.

“At a time when our economy is under duress, the FCC’s failure to enact meaningful protections is directly harming consumers and businesses alike,” Meinrath added.

Those against the measures argue that the Internet has flourished under current regulations and the move will stifle innovation and large-scale growth.

Many consumer advocacy groups, on the other hand, fought for the regulation — and in some cases, for a more dramatic set of restrictions — and mostly applauded the measures. While public interest groups worried that corporations would use their connections and deep pockets to promote their own interests on the Web, some groups assert that this will offer all parties equal commerce opportunities to grow and thrive online.

However, the regulations should be a reminder that enforcement will require a vigilant FCC and a continuing focus on the consumer as the constantly evolving online world continues to expand, according to groups such as Free Press and Public Knowledge.

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