A Federal Court Just Rewrote the Rules for the Internet. What Does That Mean for You?

A Verizon store is seen April 21, 2011 in the Westwood neighborhood of Los Angeles, California. Verizon announced today that it activated 2.2 million iPhones during the first quarter, helping the company more than triple its profit from a year ago. The company reported earnings of $1.4 billion on revenue of $27 billion for the quarter. Profit grew more than three-fold from the $443 million the telecom company earned during the same period last year. 
National Journal
Jan. 15, 2014, midnight

A fed­er­al court on Tues­day over­threw fed­er­al rules to en­force what is known as net­work neut­ral­ity, the prin­ciple that all In­ter­net traffic should re­ceive free and equal ser­vice. Now, with those rules on ice, In­ter­net car­ri­ers such as Ve­r­i­zon and Com­cast can charge web­sites for faster ser­vice — or even block some data from en­ter­ing all to­geth­er.

So what does that mean for your surf­ing?

For now, not much. The rul­ing mostly af­fects the scope of the Fed­er­al Com­mu­nic­a­tion Com­mis­sion’s au­thor­ity to reg­u­late the In­ter­net. It won’t be un­til if and when In­ter­net pro­viders be­gin to ex­per­i­ment with new pri­cing schemes that the changes start — and even then it will be web­sites, and not in­di­vidu­al users, that ab­sorb most of the im­pact.

But make no mis­take, if the FCC’s rules really are gone and stay gone, In­ter­net users will feel it.

Take Net­flix. The web­site is a band­width glut­ton, as its stream­ing ser­vice re­quires massive amounts of in­form­a­tion to pass through the Web. That could prove pricey now that In­ter­net pro­viders are per­mit­ted to charge more, and that bill would likely be passed on to con­sumers when it came time to pay their monthly sub­scrip­tion fees.

Net­flix, like oth­er video-stream­ing ser­vices, is par­tic­u­larly vul­ner­able be­cause not only does it use sig­ni­fic­antly more data than oth­er web­sites, it com­petes dir­ectly with In­ter­net pro­viders’ cable of­fer­ings.

“The way to think about [In­ter­net] pro­viders is that they own the drive­way to your house,” said John Blev­ins, as­so­ci­ate pro­fess­or of law at the Loy­ola Uni­versity New Or­leans Col­lege of Law. “What this de­cision does is, it ef­fect­ively en­ables a pro­vider to act like a boun­cer and dic­tate what data [go] in­to your house.”

In the long run, net-neut­ral­ity ad­voc­ates worry that charge-for-speed ar­range­ments will stifle in­nov­a­tion. Con­sumers might miss out on the next Google, the ad­voc­ates say, be­cause In­ter­net fledglings that lack the cash to pay for faster ser­vice are at a dis­ad­vant­age.

“Strong en­force­ment of the Com­mis­sion’s Open In­ter­net prin­ciples is the least Con­gress can do to pre­serve a free and open In­ter­net, en­sur­ing that net­works re­main a ro­bustly com­pet­it­ive en­gine for in­nov­a­tion and eco­nom­ic growth,” said Demo­crat­ic Rep. Anna Eshoo, whose dis­trict in­cludes a large por­tion of Sil­ic­on Val­ley. “I will util­ize every ar­row in my quiver, in­clud­ing le­gis­la­tion, to make sure the FCC can carry out this crit­ic­al mis­sion ef­fect­ively.” 

Oth­ers, however, be­lieve that the lack of reg­u­la­tion is what built the In­ter­net as we know it, and they say less reg­u­la­tion will pro­duce new tech­no­lo­gies. Re­fer­ring to the FCC’s de­cision to clas­si­fy the In­ter­net as an in­form­a­tion ser­vice rather than a tele­com­mu­nic­a­tions ser­vice, Re­pub­lic­an Reps. Fred Up­ton and Greg Walden said in a joint state­ment Tues­day:

“In the In­ter­net’s in­fancy, the com­mis­sion made the right de­cision to leave it free from the in­ter­fer­ence of gov­ern­ment reg­u­lat­ors. Today’s rul­ing va­cates the com­mis­sion’s at­tempt to go back on this policy and to smoth­er the In­ter­net with rules de­signed for the mono­poly tele­phone net­work.”

Al­though Ve­r­i­zon said in a state­ment Tues­day that users’ In­ter­net ex­per­i­ence will not change post-rul­ing, the com­pany’s at­tor­ney said dur­ing the or­al ar­gu­ment in Septem­ber that Ve­r­i­zon will ex­plore char­ging web­sites for faster ser­vice if the open In­ter­net rules are over­turned.

Net-neut­ral­ity ad­voc­ates got some solace Tues­day, however. The court left in­tact one piece of the FCC’s rule that re­quires ser­vice pro­viders to dis­close which traffic they speed up, slow down, or block al­to­geth­er.

So, yes, your In­ter­net pro­vider could block ac­cess to your fa­vor­ite site, but it would at least have to tell you that it did.

This story has been up­dated with a state­ment from the of­fice of Rep. Anna Eshoo. A pre­vi­ous ver­sion in­cluded a draft state­ment from her of­fice.

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