All five members of the Federal Communications Commission agreed to augment rules for protecting network neutrality, also known as net neutrality.
However, in the 60 days following the Oct. 22 decision, public debate and lobbying will examine the details that these principles may or may not include. When the 60 days come to a close, the FCC will then announce their final rules, which will most likely go on to Congressional and court challenges.
Net neutrality is a neutral Internet connection with no restrictions prohibiting access or slowing Internet connection to any websites by Internet service providers.
Director and associate professor of the technocultural studies program at UC Davis, Jesse Drew, used a telephone as a metaphor for net neutrality.
“You just assume you can dial wherever you want to,” Drew said. “Whoever controls the line cannot make any decision for you about how you use that line.”
The new rules will codify four pre-existing net neutrality rules as well as introduce two new ones. The new principles obligate broadband providers to share how they manage their networks with users and the Federal Reserve System and prevent discrimination against websites or online services.
Matt Bishop, professor in the department of computer science and co-director of the computer security laboratory at UC Davis, explained why net neutrality is important to online users.
“[A broadband company could decide] not to allow any traffic from a website from [their] competitor, so it will take a very long time for you to get it,” Bishop said. “The Internet has never been run that way before, so the consequences may be that some access that students may have will be cut back.”
In keeping with this stance, Drew said, “[The absence of net neutrality] could and probably will cut down on [student’s] ability to go to sites that they like to go to – offbeat sites that are not big corporate sites. Some might be lost entirely.”
The proposal of new rules has sparked tension between ISP’s, such as Comcast and AT&T and online companies, like Amazon and eBay. Three days prior to the FCC’s decision, the CEO’s of 24 major tech companies, including Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Google, signed a letter to FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski in support of the rules to further protect net neutrality.
“We applaud your leadership in initiating a process to develop rules to ensure that the qualities that have made the Internet so successful are protected,” the companies said in the letter.
Nonetheless, Drew points out that online companies, including those that signed the letter, are not advocates of the rights of Internet users, but are merely looking out for their own self-interests.
“They depend on the ability for their users to use those networks unimpeded,” Drew said. “And if that’s blocked, they could suffer.”
Drew gave an example of an ISP company buying MySpace.
“They can allow Myspace to run freely on their lines but shunt Facebook off to the side, so it runs much slower,” Drew said.
Prasant Mohapatra, the Tim Bucher family endowed chair professor and chairman of the department of computer science at UC Davis, said in an e-mail interview, “Net neutrality will help companies like Facebook, Twitter, etc., whose revenue is expected to be based on the number of users.”
Opponents of the recently proposed net neutrality principles have spoken out in full force. Executive vice president of Public Affairs, Policy and Communications for Verizon Communications Inc. Tom Tauke wrote in his article for Business Week that users have no need to fear companies limiting or prohibiting their access to certain sites.
“Clearly, at Verizon, we have no plans to limit consumer access to the Internet or offer one company that relies on the Internet unfair advantage over its competitors,” Tauke said in the article.
He said the net neutrality rules already in place are sufficient. His fellow Verizon employee and communications chairman Ivan Seidenberg, on the other hand, said the new rules apply solely to ISP’s and not Internet companies, such as Google.
“If [the ruling] applies only to us, the government will be favoring one set of competitors over another,” Seidenberg said.
Pressure from such companies contributed to the FCC’s rules.
“[The FCC] decided to act because of the concerns from the telecom giants,” Mohapatra said. “Some of the telecom companies feel that net neutrality stifles innovations.”
Many of these telecom giants, such as AT&T and Comcast, hold views that correlate with Verizon’s feelings on the matter. Another of the opponents’ major arguments is that consumers will simply change their Internet service if their provider is withholding or slowing down content, and that ISP engineers need to be able to control Internet traffic in order to stop spam and viruses.
But Drew insists that the FCC’s first priority is public interest and not the bank accounts of large corporations.
“You have to look at the public interest and public interest has everything to gain from net neutrality,” Drew said.
The debate over what the new FCC net neutrality rules will encompass has just begun.
KELLEY REES can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.