Activism

Federal Regulators Issue Proposed Rules that Would Kill Open and Equal Internet Access

A caste system, based on segregating content and users by speed and wealth.

Photo Credit: Image by Shutterstock, Copyright (c) Alina Ku-Ku

The Federal Communication Commission has begun to kill the Internet as most people know it, adopting proposed rules Thursday to create a caste system allowing the giant Internet service providers to segregate users by delivery speeds and ability to pay.

The panel voted 3-to-2 in favor of the new rules, with one Democratic appointee, Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, expressing misgivings but still siding with the telecommunications giants that have long wanted to privatize Internet service.

The proposed rules now goes to a 120-day comment period, which is bound to be very confrontational. The vote came as protesters occupied the FCC’s Washington offices for a week, held protests at 20 FCC offices around the country, and collected 3.4 million online signatures to defend an equal-access-to-all Internet, known as “net neutrality.”

Craig Aaron, president and CEO of Free Press, an open-Internet advocacy group that has worked on this issue for a decade, said the FCC’s vote that today was unlike any he had ever seen. The occupiers of the FCC’s Washington offices had talked to commissioners, eliciting pledges that they would defend the public’s access to uniform online access. However, the fine print of the legal changes they proposed was pro-privatization.

“Certainly every FCC commissioner has become a defender of an open internet,” Aaron said. “Unfortunately the rhetoric doesn’t match the reality of what’s in the rules.”

Technology investors made same point. “Our main concern with the proposal today is that provides no certainty for a start up that tries to run a business that uses massive information,” said Marvin Ammori, with the San Francisco-based venture group, Engine Advocacy. “You have to pay for a fast lane [high-speed, high-volume] service. You won’t be able to afford it and your competitors will.”

Becky Bond, political director for Credo Mobile, a smaller telecommunications firm that funds progressive causes and has lead the net neutrality fight, said the FCC’s actions puts real pressure on President Obama to do what he pledged when running for office—ensure open access and prevent corporate giants from monopolizing the net.  

“This is his FCC chairman and his FCC,” Bond said. “Its time for the president to come off the sidelines… This is the beginning, not the end of a fight.”  

The heart of this fight concerns what access to the Internet looks like as communication technology keeps evolving and is able to offer services that use more data and faster data speeds. Just as computers have become faster, so too have the electronic pipes that link people, their homes, their jobs, their cars and all the devices that tie them together.

The activists and entrepreneurs that said that proposed rules drafted by FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler and passed by the board would create an Internet caste system, because the largest companies with the deepest pockets could essentially buy better content-delivery services and then gain an unfair advantage over their emerging competition. Consumers, needles to say, would be forced to pay higher fees with little or no recourse.

The fight over maintaining a neutral net is not new, but has escalated in recent weeks. FCC Chairman Wheeler began to leak his proposal to selective media, promoting the wave of protests. Meanwhile, Internet service providers companies like AT&T and Verizon filed legal papers opposing any new FCC rules ensuring equal treatment. 

Public-interest groups quickly slammed those moves, warning that the segregation of content-delivery services rules would fundamentally alter the nature of the Internet and benefit the largest corporations, allowing cable-giants like Comcast to charge content-bundlers, like Netflix or other websites, special fees to deliver high-quality video.

The FCC adopted earlier net-neutrality rules in 2010, but a federal appeals court threw out those rules this past January. The old rules barred Internet providers from blocking websites or discriminating against any Internet traffic. Thursday’s proposals came in response to that federal court ruling.

Heading into Thursday’s meeting, leaks to the press by FCC staffers said that Wheeler’s proposed new rules would retain the ban on blocking. But instead of the discrimination ban, they would allow Internet providers to offer websites varying speeds as long as the arrangements were “commercially reasonable.”

Open Internet advocate, Free Press President Craig Aaron, said that would be anything but reasonable, instead “aiding and abetting the largest ISPs in their efforts to destroy the open Internet” and was “an insult to those who care about preserving the open Internet.”

That “commercially reasonable” standard would allow ISPs to “pick winners and losers online,” said Michael Weinberg, a vice president at Public Knowledge, who predicted smaller websites and rural areas would not be able to pay and lose out to urban users.

Looking ahead, open Internet advocates like Free Press’s Aaron said that there would be tremendous organizing and lobbying for the FCC to go back to the drawing board.

“If they stand up for the Internet, the Internet will stand up for them,” he said, citing the growing public outcry and advocacy. “We certainly will not go away.”

Steven Rosenfeld covers national political issues for AlterNet, including America's democracy and voting rights. He is the author of several books on elections and the co-author of Who Controls Our Schools: How Billionaire-Sponsored Privatization Is Destroying Democracy and the Charter School Industry (AlterNet eBook, 2016).

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