When’s the last time a television comic galvanized a mass audience with material based on an FCC vote about a complicated collection of tech regulations? Never, I’d guess. But it happened this week when John Oliver served up a routine about net neutrality on his topical HBO show Last Week Tonight. Viewers responded to his call to flood the agency with comments on the subject, which likely contributed — if it didn’t cause — a temporary crash of the FCC’s servers. In any case, it highlighted the broad concern about net neutrality: The FCC has recently received more than 64,400 comments and 301,000 emails on the subject, Chairman Tom Wheeler tweeeted after Oliver’s show, good naturedly urging advocates to “Keep ‘em coming.”
He won’t have to worry. Net roots activists and opponents of government regulation are becoming energized by a recent FCC vote to prevent unfair Internet practices after a court early this year remanded net neutrality rules regulators passed in 2010. Open Internet supporters say Wheeler and his colleagues’ effort didn’t go far enough. Others warn the FCC not to mess with the Web’s still-developing economic ecosystem.
Related: FCC Approves Net Neutrality Proposal
Here’s an overview of the issues, and the stakes:
Q: What does net neutrality mean?
A: Generally speaking, net neutrality means that an Internet service provider (ISP) — such as cable or phone company — treats all content equally. For example, it doesn’t offer faster transmissions for Netflix videos than it does for those from Amazon Prime.
Q: Is this a widespread problem?
A: Not yet, but open Internet advocates say it could become one. They note that cable companies have a long history of using their gatekeeper power to favor channels that they own, and require others to make financial concessions in order to be carried or find a home at a low number on the dial (desirable) as opposed to a high one (undesirable).
Q: Why shouldn’t the Internet operate the same way? Isn’t that how markets work?
A: Net neutrality advocates say that the Internet is too important to the economy and democracy to let companies such as Comcast and Verizon effectively pick winners and losers. ISPs might favor big, established businesses over entrepreneurs, and mainstream opinions over dissenting ones. And there are too few alternatives: Cable companies dominate sales of the fastest speed wired service; the market share for telco DSL services is declining. AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile and Sprint offer wireless broadband, but they don’t have enough airwave spectrum to affordably match cable’s speed.
Q: What do net neutrality supporters want?
A: Many say that the FCC should adopt regulations that bar ISPs from favoring some content providers.
Q: ISPs disagree, right?
A: Right. They say such rules are unnecessary, and might backfire by frightening the investors who could supply the capital needed to build and maintain the broadband infrastructure.
Q: What did the FCC do?
A: It adopted net neutrality rules in 2010. Verizon challenged them. And in January the U.S. Court of Appeals in DC remanded them.
Q: What was the problem?
A: Judges said that in 2002 and 2005 the FCC relinquished much of its authority to regulate Internet traffic. The agency defined broadband as a lightly regulated information service in the hope that it would entice investors to pay for infrastructure construction. Commissioners would have had more leeway to set rules for the Web if they had classified it as a phone-like common carrier service.
Q: Where do things stand now?
A: The FCC voted last month to seek comment on a new collection of proposed rules based on its current legal authority. It would allow ISPs to create a so-called fast lane on what used to be known as the Internet superhighway — but with several restrictions. For example, ISPs would have to disclose deal partners, and demonstrate that the terms are “commercially reasonable.”
Q: What’s wrong with that?
A: Net neutrality advocates oppose any fast lanes. They want the FCC to reclassify the Internet as a common carrier service so regulators can establish tougher open Internet rules that likely would survive a court challenge.
Q: Why didn’t the FCC reclassify?
A: It would be a long and politically fraught battle — and Wheeler says that it’s important to move as quickly as possible to adopt net neutrality rules that would pass muster with the court. He adds that he hasn’t ruled out reclassification. The FCC will decide what to do in several months, after people have a chance to comment on its proposed rules.
Q: Does the FCC have any other options?
A: Agency watchers believe it will insist on tough net neutrality terms for Comcast as a condition for approving its $45B agreement to buy Time Warner Cable, and for AT&T before agreeing to its $49B deal for DirecTV.
Q: Netflix CEO Reed Hastings says that Comcast recently forced him to pay the cable giant in order to stop a slowdown in its transmissions of his company’s videos. He says this is a net neutrality issue. Is it?
A: Here’s where the definition becomes muddy. Net neutrality conversations typically involve the content sent from the ISP to a subscriber’s home. Netflix’s deal with Comcast covers something different known as peering: it’s the point where a website and ISP send data to each other. Peering arrangements also also affect the quality of transmissions to consumers, though, and Wheeler says the FCC will look at the matter.
Q: Who supports reclassification?
A: Battle lines are still being formed, but the basic contours are becoming apparant. More than 140 tech companies including Google, Facebook, Twitter, and Amazon signed a letter last month that stopped short of calling for reclassification but seemed to put them close to that position, saying that fast lanes represent “a grave threat to the Internet.” Prominent Democrats including senators Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Chuck Schumer (D-NY) Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), and Al Franken (D-Minn.) are just as energized. Franken calls net neutrality “the free-speech issue of our time.” And scores of consumer groups including Public Knowledge, Consumers Union, and Free Press support reclassification.
Q: And who opposes?
A: ISPs including AT&T, Comcast, Time Warner Cable, and Verizon urge the FCC not to take that route. With reclassification “An era of differentiation, innovation, and experimentation would be replaced with a series of ‘Government may I?’ requests from American entrepreneurs,” says a letter sent to the FCC last month signed by chiefs of all the leading broadband companies. They’re supported by many Republicans in the House including Speaker John Boehner (Ohio), Majority Leader Eric Cantor (Va.), Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (Calif.), and Conference Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers (Wash.), Rep. Bob Latta (OH) recently proposed a bill that would prevent reclassification.