Net Neutrality: Key victory for advocates as FCC proposes making Internet a public utility

FCC Director Tom Wheeler: 'I propose the strongest open internet protections ever'

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The Independent Tech

Open internet advocates are today celebrating the historic decision by the US communications regulator to support net neutrality by reclassifying the Internet as a public utility.

In the most significant step of the decade-long debate about net neutrality, The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has proposed strong protections for data-equality on the Internet following fears that US Internet providers would make websites pay to work faster — likely stifling Internet innovation and costing customers more.

In an op-ed for Wired, FCC Director Tom Wheeler said: "I am submitting to my colleagues the strongest open Internet protections ever proposed by the FCC.

"These enforceable, bright-line rules will ban paid prioritization, and the blocking and throttling of lawful content and services.

"I propose to fully apply— for the first time ever — those bright-line rules to mobile broadband.

"My proposal assures the rights of Internet users to go where they want, when they want, and the rights of innovators to introduce new products without asking anyone’s permission."

It is argued that the development of an Internet 'fast lane' - in which ISPs could prioritise data - would make it more difficult for start-ups to succeed, and more expensive for people to use certain services (like Netflix).

Critics of net neutrality say FCC regulation would discourage investment in Internet infrastructure, and prevent ISP innovation.

In the US, the Internet is currently classified as a low-regulation 'information service'.

Under Wheeler's new proposal, using Title II of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, it would become a public utility.

The five FCC commissioners will vote on the measure on February 26, and it's expected to pass with support from Wheeler's fellow two Democrats.

 

This legal strategy, which has long been championed by open Internet activists, was until recently treated as a radical approach.

Wheeler had previously tried to enforce net neutrality using provisions outlined in existing legislation, but recent court decisions indicated that the government agency would have limited authority on the web.

In January last year the US Court of Appeals ruled in favour of Verizon Communications in a case over whether the FCC had exceeded its authority in trying to enforce net neutrality.

That verdict has shaped the debate ever since, with calls for new legislation increasing in frequency and veracity.

In November, President Obama backed the "strongest possible rules" to ensure net neutrality.

Wheeler's proposal, which goes beyond even Obama's recommendations, would enable the FCC to review whether Internet providers are treating data fairly — and it even extends to mobile broadband.

Under these draft rules, any company that feels its content is being mistreated by an Internet provider can file a complaint with the FCC to have its claims investigated.

The key example here would be the Netflix-Comcast clash last Spring, in which the video streaming service was strongarmed into paying to connect directly to the Internet provider so that customers could watch movies without loading problems.

Netflix responded to the new FCC proposal: "If such an oversight process had been in place last year, we certainly would've used it when a handful of ISPs opted to hold our members hostage until we paid up."

Verizon, one of the Internet providers who would be policed under the new rules, released a statement criticising the decision as "unnecessary and counterproductive".

Even if it is passed by the Commission later this month, the net neutrality debate is unlikely to end there.

It is expected that ISPs will file lawsuits against the FCC, claiming agency overeach.

And should a Republican administration be elected in 2016, it's possible that the rules would be overturned seeing as the party is largely anti-regulation.

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