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Will the FCC Now Protect Net Neutrality?

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I've been following the fight to persuade the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to regulate internet service providers and thereby ensure net neutrality (the principle that all Internet content must be treated equally by internet service providers, where no content is given preferential treatment by ISPs) for a few weeks now and have always come to you, readers, with somewhat sad news.

First, I wrote about how net neutrality was hanging by a thread when a federal judge ruled that the FCC didn't have the authority to demand that Comcast not throttle, or slow down, certain types of content. But I was hopeful that the FCC would reclassify internet services such that they can regulate the industry much the same way they do telephone service. Then earlier this week I wrote about how it seemed the FCC was going to shy away from that option and cave to the telecommunications lobby and leave the industry unregulated.

Chin up, digital rights activists! It appears the FCC is doing -- gasp! -- the right thing.

I know, I know, in this era of under-regulation ( see: financial industry, oil industry, food industry, etc.) it appears the Obama administration has decided to regulate the ISPs who bring each and every one of us access to the Internet, which is quickly becoming society's most important mode of communication.

The FCC needed only a simple majority to reclassify internet services and it appears the chairman, Julius Genachowski, has cast the decisive vote.

Of course the telecoms are already whining:

Telecom executives say privately that limits on their ability to change pricing would make it harder to convince shareholders that the returns from spending billions of dollars on improving a network are worth the cost.

Carriers fear further regulation could handcuff their ability to cope with the growing demand put on their networks by the explosion in Internet and wireless data traffic. In particular, they worry that the FCC will require them to share their networks with rivals at government-regulated rates.

But as I wrote a few weeks ago, this is something of a red herring argument, as Chris Riley, an expert I spoke to said so aptly:

"Really what they mean is any form of regulation will increase competition and reduce their profit margins and will force them to invest in building better pipes. This isn't about turning these guys into utilities, it's about placing limits on what they can do, and not allowing them to discriminate."

So what does this mean for net neutrality? Josh Silver of Free Press, a digital rights non-profit has this to say:

“The FCC is sending a clear signal that they are backing away from the cliff.  It appears they are charting a path toward a sensible broadband policy framework that will protect consumers and promote universal access.  This is extremely welcome news.  We reserve judgment, however, on whether the FCC has gone far enough to protect consumers with this new proposal.  We are eager to see the details and evaluate whether the Commission’s approach is the best path toward achieving the goals of open, affordable, world-class Internet access. We are gratified that the calls from consumers and concerned Internet users across America are being heard. The Chairman is stepping up to the plate.”

So, we'll see yet. But it's a mighty step in the right direction.

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