FCC’s New Net Neutrality Rules Make Nobody Happy

Here's what they say, and what comes next.

By Jamilah King Dec 21, 2010

Well, it’s here. The Federal Communications Commission announced on Tuesday that it had finally reached a deal on regulating Internet service providers. The long awaited vote means that there are finally rules to how the Internet is run and managed–well, sorta.

The vote fell strictly along party lines, with Democratic commissioners Julius Genachowski, Mignon Clyburn and Michael Copps voting in favor of the new plan, and Commissioners Robert McDowell and Meredit Attwell Baker voting against it. McDowell gave a particularly Oscar-worthy performance in his dissent, dramatically calling the vote "one of the darkest days in the commission’s history" and quipping that "at least we’re not regulating coffee shops."

Commissioners Copps and Clyburn were probably in the best positions to push for stronger regulations, but in statements released on Monday, both admitted that they were reluctantly endorsing the new rules because…well, they’re better than nothing.

"The Commission has worked tirelessly to offer a set of guidelines that, while not as strong as they could be, will nonetheless protect consumers as they explore, learn and innovate online," Clyburn said, according to The Hill.

Copps took a similar line, adding at Tuesday’s hearing that while he "considered dissent very, very strongly," he won’t block the order and sees it as an important step forward.

Ultimately, the deal FCC Chair Genachowski came up with and that his fellow commissioners agreed to attempts to split the difference between ensuring an open Web for users and letting service providers do whatever they want. Internet providers can’t charge more for faster service; they can’t unreasonably block traffic on their networks; and they can’t prioritize one sort of content over another, though critics point out the rules leave loopholes on this last, crucial score. 

The new rules also come with transparency requirements that help consumers make sure that they’re getting the service that they’re paying for. And, much the chagrin of bandwidth hogs, they do allow broadband providers to enact tiered pricing based on how much data consumers use each month–a move that’s already supported by people like Tim Wu, the guy who coined the term "net neutrality."

But most glaringly, the new rules fail to apply those same protections to wireless and managed services, which happen to be the fastest growing forms of broadband around and have been crucial to getting more people of color high-speed access. The loudest criticism of the plan is that AT&T and Verizon lobbyists have won a free pass from President Obama’s FCC.

One of the biggest problems with the new rules is that they probably won’t stick. The FCC’s still standing on unsteady legal ground, and the new rules didn’t go anything to change that reality.

For his part, Genachowski is proud of the deal. "These rules fulfill a promise to the future–to companies that don’t yet exist, and to the entrepreneurs that haven’t yet started work in their dorm rooms or garages," Genachowski said on Monday, referring to the beginnings of Facebook and Google, two companies that happen to be opposed to his plan and in favor of stronger regulations.

Here’s a quick breakdown of what all this means.

Wait, what happened?

The commission’s new Democratic majority finally formalized rules for the Internet.

The vote has been dismissed summarily by nearly everyone who doesn’t already own large pieces of the Web. Sara Jerome wrote on The Hill that the commission simply reached a "shaky legal argument that could get shot down in court." Open Internet advocates have dubbed the deal fake net neutrality, calling it "toothless" and mourning the end of the Internet as we know it. "The rule is so riddled with loopholes that it’s become clear that this FCC chairman crafted it with the sole purpose of winning the endorsement of AT&T and cable lobbyists," wrote Tim Karr, campaign director for advocacy group Free Press. Even the right hates it: Critics of government regulation long ago dubbed the effort a "government takeover."

Genachowski calls the proposal a compromise that’s free from any political ideology.

What does this mean for your Internet?

The big question in all of this is how any new rules could directly impact users. In short, the long battle over net neutrality has been to formalize the Internet’s thus far unwritten code of ethics–namely, that it’s an accessible and mostly free domain where any person or idea can speak without restriction by providers of the utility. You like watching dictators look at things? Great. Wanna see awkward pregnancy photos? That works too. That basic idea of Internet freedom has brought us everything from the campaign to free the Jena 6 to Facebook and, more recently, Wikileaks. If you’ve got an idea and the will to put it on the Web, and happen not to live in China or Iran, your service provider or government usually doesn’t stop you from seeing it to fruition. Nor can service providers sell faster speeds to, say, FOX News and leave independent media in the slow lane.

The fear is that this sort of freedom on the Web could erode–and in some cases it already has. Net neutrality advocates say the best way to ensure against this type of erosion is to formally regulate the industry–in this case, telecoms like AT&T, Comcast and Verizon, the companies that own the cables and towers that deliver Web access. That’s where the FCC comes in, as the regulatory body whose job it is to make sure the country stays connected and that these companies play fairly.

Okay, but really. What does this mean?

Some say consumers could end up paying more for less. Several civil rights and labor groups have refused to back net neutrality because of industry’s claims that it would drive up costs and, thus, delay efforts to widen access to broadband. And FCC Commissioner Meredith Attwell Baker criticized Tuesday’s vote in a Washington Post op-ed, arguing that the commission is "intervening to regulate the Internet because it wants to, not because it needs to," and that the new rules are based on what she termed "speculative concerns." 

But last week, new evidence emerged that pay-for-play plans aren’t just figments of activists’ imaginations. A recently leaked Web seminar from Allot Communications and Openet, two companies that work closely with AT&T and Verizon, showed that there’s already been discussion of charging users money to watch YouTube and visit Facebook.

Where did all this come from?

On his path to the White House, President Obama said again and again that he’s a firm believer in net neutrality, and that once he was elected to office he’d be sure to undo the years of regulatory slack inflicted by the Bush administration. He enlisted Julius Genachowski to chair the commission and carry out his vision. But somewhere between vocal Republican obstructionism and big money lobbying from telecom companies themselves, that vision got cloudy. Genashowski professed that the Internet should remain an open space for ideas, but that corporations had rights too

It’s the same position that’s been taken by some of the nation’s largest civil rights groups, who’ve come out in opposition to net neutrality because they claim it’ll keep companies from building new, affordable networks in poor and rural communities. But those same groups have been accused of taking millions from telecom companies to help spread their gospel.

What happens now?

The lingering legal uncertainly means the FCC is likely to be taken to court, just as it was the last time it tried to put limits on telecom’s broadbrand plans (Verizon’s reportedly already considering a lawsuit). Back then, a federal judge ruled in Comcast v. FCC that the commission didn’t legally have the power to regulate broadband, a decision that Commissioner Copps on Tuesday called the result of a "dangerous anti-regulatory ride" from the previous nine years. The ruling rested on a technicality that the FCC could have easily reversed by reclassifying broadband as a Title II telecommunications service. But perhaps the strongest sign of Genachowski’s intent to cooperate with rather than fight telecom came in his decision not to reclassify.

And, of course, there’s the new Republican-led Congress, filled with its anti-regulatory cheerleaders who’ve vowed to stop any new rules from ever seeing the light of day.

In the mean time, open Internet activists have got a whole list of ways to make the FCC’s rules a lot stronger. So as the lawsuits start rolling in, you may as well go get even more informed.