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FCC issues new Net Neutrality rules

January 4, 2011 by · Comments Off
Filed under: Internet, law 

On December 21st the FCC approved new rules regarding Net Neutrality.  Net Neutrality is the concept that all websites will be treated the same by ISPs (e.g. Verizon or Comcast), and ISPs will not be able to block websites that may compete with additional services the ISP may offer.  For example, Comcast offers telephone services through their network, and so they would profit by banning (or charging an additional fee to) VOIP telephone services, such as Skype, from using Comcast’s transmission lines.  Comcast might also charge websites to receive a faster loading, creating “fast lane” for high budget sites and discouraging users from visiting start-up sites with a slower load time.  Net Neutrality would prevent Comcast from taking this action.

The rules set forth by the FCC sparked harsh criticism from people on both sides of the issue.  FCC commissioner Robert McDowell claimed these rules were overly vague and intrusive regulation by the federal government over the internet.  Senator Al Franken, a strong supporter of Net Neutrality, said he felt these regulations failed to provide the protections he was hoping for.  Many free speech and internet advocacy groups claimed the FCC proposal is Net Neutrality in name only, and fails to meet the principles of Net Neutrality.  The ISPs and wireless carriers themselves seem to be among the few organizations that are in support of the new plan.  The simple fact that the industry being regulated is in favor of the new regulations is cause for worry for many Net Neutrality advocates.

There are two areas of contention about the new rules.  The first is the FCC allowing ISPs to engage in “network management”, which will permit ISPs to slow internet connections and engage in “reasonable” activity to manage their network.  Network Neutrality worries that this exception will become a loophole allowing ISPs to completely escape Network Neutrality restrictions.  The other issue is with wireless carriers, which will be allowed to restrict the availability of applications on mobile phones, a violation of network neutrality principles.  The FCC claims that smart phones are an emerging technology and need to be granted more leeway until the technology has had time to establish itself.

One thing most of the interested parties in these regulations agree on is that these regulations will be the subject of law suits in the near future.  The FCC’s previous Net Neutrality regulations were held unenforceable in federal court when they were challenged by Comcast.  The FCC claims that they have established these rules with solid legal grounding based on the 1996 Telecommunications Act, but the sufficiency of these claims is sure to be tested soon.

The Battle over Network Neutrality May Finally Be Hitting Your Monthly Bill as Comcast and Netflix Provider Spar

December 2, 2010 by · Comments Off
Filed under: Uncategorized 

While many Internet denizens have been avidly following the ongoing controversy, the majority of Internet users don’t know about it, and frankly, don’t care.  It’s hard to get people riled up over an issue that may, someday, be a problem.  The only real sufferers of a disregard for Net Neutrality have been peer-2-peer file sharers in 2007, when Comcast began deliberately lowering their internet speeds.  Finally, however, the debate may have entered an arena that hits close to home.

Netflix traffic currently takes up around 20% of all internet traffic, making it a giant in the field and a service near and dear to many internet users’ hearts.  Comcast has recently forced Level 3 Communication, the major traffic supporter for Netflix, to pay an additional fee to the Internet Service Provider.  Comcast claims that this fee is not a violation of Net Neutrality, but rather is being charged as a result of increases in Internet traffic.  Level 3 Communications claims this type of fee is in violation of the Network Neutrality rules proposed by the FCC that are to be voted on later this December.

The central idea behind Network Neutrality is that ISPs may not restrict access to specific services, whether by slowing speeds or charging fees for access to specific sites.  There is a growing concern that ISPs will team up with large entertainment companies and restrict their customers’ access to only their business partners websites and internet services.  The proposed merger of Comcast and NBC that appears to be finalized soon is weighing heavy on the proponents of Net Neutrality.

An Update on Network Neutrality

May 12, 2010 by · Comments Off
Filed under: law, Online Privacy 

            Last fall the FCC issued a statement asserting that it would begin to enforce Net Neutrality regulation against broadband internet carriers (see article here).  However, in April a Federal Court of Appeals issued a decision which struck down an FCC decision that enforced Net Neutrality, and made many question the ability of the FCC to enforce Net Neutrality without a specific mandate from congress.  The FCC, however, still has a power play in reserve should they wish to reassert their dominance over broadband internet providers.

 The Court Decision – Comcast Corp. v. FCC

            In 2008 and earlier Comcast enacted a policy to slowdown the internet speeds for people who are they assumed were using peer-to-peer networks and were engaged in significant (presumably illegal) downloading.  Their argument was essentially that these users were resource hogs and were slowing other customers’ connections.  The problem was that Comcast targeted users accessing a particular service over the internet and slowed their protection, a direct violation of the concept of Net Neutrality, where a user will get equal access to different sites and internet services.  The worry behind this is that in the future your ISP may charge you extra to use services like VoIP, or even email.

            The FCC determined in August of 2008 that Comcast’s slowing of user’s connections in this manner was a violation of FCC policy, and ordered Comcast to cease this activity.  Comcast appealed this decision and it made it all the way to Federal Court of Appeals.  This court overturned the FCC decision and held that the FCC lacked the authority to enforce Net Neutrality rules.  Despite this ruling, the FCC plans to move ahead with creating formalized Net Neutrality rules.  It is unclear how the FCC will claim legal authority to create these rules in light of this decision.

Beefing up the FCC’s regulatory authority

            At any time congress could pass a law granting the FCC the authority to enforce network neutrality.  There has been mixed feelings towards network neutrality on Capitol Hill, and with everything else going on with Congress it is unlikely that Net Neutrality will make it to the top of the agenda any time soon.

            The FCC, however, has the ability to give itself more regulatory power.  In the late 1990’s the FCC mandated that companies who operate phone lines (referred to as telecommunication services) allow third parties to use their lines to provide internet access.  It essentially disconnected the company who owned the phone lines from the company who provided the internet access.  The FCC’s ability to enforce these mandates was limited to companies that provided a “telecommunications service.”  In 2002 the FCC issued a ruling stating that cable companies were not a “telecommunications service”, but rather an “information service”, and thus are not subject to the same level of heavy regulation that the phone companies are subjected to. 

            This classification of cable companies as “information service” providers was made internally by the FCC, and thus can be overturned on their own authority.  Reclassifying cable companies as “telecommunication service” providers will give the FCC an ample amount of power to enforce Network Neutrality rules on cable companies as well as much more extensive regulation, generally.  There is concern, however, that reclassifying cable companies will stifle investment in the industry.  This is a concern that may trump Net Neutrality for the FCC, as the US lags behind many advanced nations in terms of access to broadband.  If the FCC doesn’t reclassify cable companies it is unclear how they will be able to enforce Network Neutrality, or if the effort will be abandoned altogether until congress can grant express authority. 

            Unfortunately, just like last time I discussed Network Neutrality, there are still more questions than answers and this debate is far from finished.

Who Owns the Internet? ISPs, FCC and Congress get ready for a fight over Net Neutrality

November 3, 2009 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Business, Copyright Articles, Online Privacy 

By Ed Nunes

Net Neutrality has been the buzz word people have been fighting over since late October when the FCC decided it would create regulation to enforce Net Neutrality.  Unfortunately, the issue of Net Neutrality has become quite confusing.  Advocates both for and against Net Neutrality frame their arguments in terms of ensuring freedom on the internet.  The issue is also a highly contested one, as shown by a bill brought by John McCain (The Internet Freedom Act) which would prevent the FCC from enforcing Net Neutrality.  This bill was proposed just hours before the FCC announced it would put regulations in place to support Net Neutrality.

What is Net Neutrality?

Net Neutrality is an issue that goes to the heart of how the internet functions.  When information is sent on the internet it goes first through the sender’s ISP, then through numerous servers around the nation (or the globe), then through the recipient’s ISP before it finally ends up on the recipient’s computer.  The most relevant step is that the information always flows through the recipient’s ISP servers before it can reach the recipient’s computer.

The term “neutrality” comes from the idea that all of the servers that pass along the data (including the ISPs) would not assign priority to any specific types of data, or data from a specific location.  All packets of information would be thought of as “neutral” by the relaying servers.  The fight is whether private companies, specifically the ISPs, should be allowed to give some types of information priority over others.

How does Net Neutrality Affect You?

Net Neutrality may seem obscure and technical, but it actually has a profound effect on how web-goers experience the internet.  ISPs only have so much bandwidth, and so when there is a high demand the information is queued by the ISP to send to the recipient.  This necessarily results in slower connection speed for the recipient.  Without Net Neutrality ISPs would be free allow some information (such as information from a partner company) to cut to the front of the queue, while other information (such as information from a competitor) could be slowed down, or potentially blocked all together.  Comcast got into hot water with the FCC last year when it admitted to slowing down the connection speed of peer-to-peer file sharers, though Comcast is currently challenging the FCC decision on the ground that Net Neutrality was not formally adopted by the FCC at the time.

What Are the Arguments on Either Side?

Those that oppose Net Neutrality, including John McCain and the ISPs, claim that Net Neutrality would be government interference in their private business.  They are claiming that their freedom to conduct business as they see fit will be impeded by Net Neutrality regulation.  The internet has prospered under the hands-off approach the government has taken up to this point, so they claim, and government interference will prevent the ISPs from providing the best service for their customers.  Essentially their argument is the ‘business knows best’ approach and that government interference is unnecessary and will likely be harmful to everyone.

Those in favor of Net Neutrality claim that if ISPs can prioritize data then the internet will become over-run by commercial interests.  One of the most unique aspects of the internet is the very low publishing cost, allowing everyone to have a voice.  By limiting or restricting access to some sites publishing costs may increase, resulting in only commercialized content reaching web-goers.  Supporters of Net Neutrality see this issue as critical to ensuring that the internet remains collaborative, with dispersed content providers, ensuring that the internet remains a free space for everyone to use.

What Will the Future Hold?

It is not clear how things will turn out.  While the FCC has plans to enforce Net Neutrality, legislation like the Internet Freedom Act could over-ride FCC decisions.  Even if the FCC is unable to enforce Net Neutrality there is no certainty that market forces won’t drive ISPs to choose to enforce Net Neutrality on their own.  One thing to consider, however, is that if we ever lose Net Neutrality will the supporters ever again have enough political clout to get it back?