The new rules adopted by the FCC today are supposed to protect what has become the central tenet of the web, network neutrality. It’s a compromise, said FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, designed to encourage companies to invest in broadband infrastructure, while preventing them from favoring one website or service over another.
But the ambiguous language of the new rules and the different frameworks applied to landlines and mobile internet mean that corporations like Comcast will likely continue to treat data from certain companies differently and discriminate against sites and services that don’t fit into their bottom line.
“As we stand here now, the freedom and openness of the Internet are unprotected,” Genachowski said. “No rules on the books to protect basic Internet values. No process for monitoring Internet openness as technology and business models evolve. No recourse for innovators, consumers, or speakers harmed by improper practices. And no predictability for Internet service providers, so that they can effectively manage and invest in broadband networks. That will change once we vote to approve this strong and balanced order.”
It’s true that the FCC’s needed to define itself and its position, to throw down a gauntlet for the numerous court battles sure to come. But the language of today’s ruling gives companies like Comcast the right to engage in “reasonable network management,” while it also bans “unreasonable discrimination.” In the rapidly expanding field of wireless internet, then, the FCC has given companies like Verizon and AT&T even more latitude to decide what is reasonable or not.
As we have already seen in the dispute between Comcast and Level 3 over the enormous amount of traffic being sent by Netflix, the big internet providers aren’t afraid to play hardball, clamp down on certain kinds of data and fight it out in court.
The FCC should have set in stone the following simple rule: ISPs can charge whatever they want for data that travels over their networks, but cannot discriminate based on content, source or destination.
By giving corporations the right to “manage their networks,” the FCC failed to accomplish both of its major goals. The more these big ISPs control which data flows across their networks and at what speeds, the less true competition will emerge between them. Removing real neutrality from these networks will thus discourage investment in new broadband infrastructure, while undercutting the egalitarian nature of the web which has driven so much innovation and enterprise in America.