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Net Neutrality: What It Is, the Recent Court Decision, And What It Means For Consumers

On January 14, a District of Columbia U.S. Appeals Court ruled (Adobe PDF) in favor of Verizon in its lawsuit against the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) about "Net neutrality." After a lower court ruled that the FCC has the right to regulate the Internet (e.g., issue rules about net neutrality within the United States), Verizon appealed the decision. The appeals court combined the Verizon suit with other related suits (e.g., MetroPCS Communications), and ruled in favor of Verizon that the FCC does not have the right to regulate Internet Service Providers (defined as information services and not as utilities).

You're probably wonder what the fuss is about, what "Net neutrality" is, and what the impact of the recent court ruling might be.

"Net neutrality" is the concept that when you, consumers, pay for access to the Internet you get access to the entire Internet. No filters. Not portions of the Internet. No blocked sites. No payment tiers. You choose where you want to go online, which search engine to use, and visit the Web sites you want to visit. Nobody chooses or decides for you. You are in control. You are free to roam about the Internet as you choose.

This eCommerce Times article described the "Net neutrality" concept and how it protects consumers:

"... is short for "network neutrality" or "Internet neutrality." The concept addresses user access to the Internet, and the debate around Net neutrality centers on whether ISPs (Internet service providers) can limit, tier, block or otherwise affect Internet performance. Without Net neutrality, ISPs can even charge higher fees for more bandwidth and higher-speed access to one vendor and not others, thus establishing tiers of service... Or, if an ISP preferred (e.g. had a financial interest in) one search engine over another, that ISP could force its customers to the preferred search engine by charging customers more each time they used any other search engine..."

The FCC set up some initial rules in 2011 which Verizon challenged. The eCommerce Times article described the FCC's rules, which are based upon transparency, prohibits blocking, distinguishes mobile access, and prohibits "unreasonable discrimination." CNet provides good explanations of the net neutrality issues and history.

Of course, the ISPs want to make more money. They see how important the Internet has become. Their first forays were with behavioral targeting; to track your online usage and serve up custom ads based upon your Internet usage. Privacy advocates fought this early battle and largely won, but ISPs have not given up.

As I see it, ISPs have already proven with their actions that they cannot be trusted. They will abuse consumers if left unchecked. During the past seven years, the following blog posts documented instances where ISPs worked with advertising networks and technology companies to spy on consumers without notice and with failed opt-out mechanisms:

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) said this years ago about the FCC:

"... how far can the FCC be trusted? Historically the FCC has sometimes shown more concern for the demands of corporate lobbyists and "public decency" advocates than it has for individual civil liberties..."

The Huffington Post reported what might happen next:

"Though the FCC could try to rewrite its rule or appeal the decision, in the meantime ISPs like Comcast, Verizon, AT&T and Time Warner Cable are free to make deals with companies promising quicker content delivery in exchange for payment -- essentially creating Internet "fast lanes" for wealthy companies and making their websites easier to access than those of nonprofits, activist groups and smaller competitors."

What might the impact be without net neutrality? I look at cable television as a preview.

If you pay for cable TV, then you know what I mean about cable TV pricing schemes. It's expensive and you can't choose the cable stations you want. You pay a monthly fee for "basic" service and pay extra for each extra package of cable stations. For example, Comcast's cable TV packages: Basic, Expanded Basic, Family, Digital Economy, Digital Starter, Digital Preferred, Digital Premium, Sports Entertainment, Music Choice, Pay-Per-View, Sports Pay-Per-View, International, and MultiLatino. The cable TV provider chooses which stations are in each package. You can only choose packages and not individual stations. Highly profitable for the cable TV provider; expensive for consumers. Plus, the customer service is often horrendous.

The United States, where the Internet was invented, ranks 35th of 148 countries on Internet bandwidth. We pay a lot and don't get the speed nor value citizens get in higher ranked countries. Verizon happily filmed a commercial in Boston about FiOS, its fiber broadband service, even though the service isn't available in Boston.

So much for innovation and competition.

Consumers have little real choice and few freedoms while the companies make huge profits. And, it hurts the coutry since consumers don't get the value we deserve. The United States

Do you want your Internet service set up the same way as cable TV service? I don't and I bet you feel the same way as I. I don't want my Internet access mucked up like cable TV service.

What is at stake? To me, the first thing at stake is our democracy. A healthy democracy is based upon citizens having access to information; unfiltered by corporations that have their own interests. the second thing at stake is your freedoms; to access the whole internet and not pieces somebody else decides. If "Net Neutrality" is lost, then we consumers will likely pay a lot more.

Ideally, the FCC should classify ISPs as utilities, but lobbying in Congress may prevent that. The Congress has failed to act on this several times before. The New York Times reported:

"... Tom Wheeler, the agency’s new chairman, said the agency might appeal the decision, but had previously voiced support for allowing Internet companies to experiment with new delivery methods and products... In a statement, Mr. Wheeler said he was “committed to maintaining our networks as engines for economic growth, test beds for innovative services and products, and channels for all forms of speech protected by the First Amendment.”

So, the FCC will likely not act. Corporate cash has infected both political parties under the cloak of free speech for companies and vague promises of innovation. There was trickle-down economics. Now we have trickle-down Internet innovation. Maybe the benefits and cost savings flow to consumers.

Maybe... but I highly doubt it.

Contact your elected officials today and demand action.


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Some related news:

Netflix Warns It Will Provoke Customer Protest if ISPs Violate Net Neutrality Principles


ann hannan

Thanks for putting together all the facts about this complicated process George. Your one-stop-shop offerings are useful in an otherwise overwhelm of spotty information that lacks cohesion or comprehension. I am also grateful to have the minutes today to read your blog. Time (or lack thereof) is also the reason a lot of us just ignore these important initiatives.


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