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The FCC's contentious new 'net neutrality' rules and you: What you need to know

A new proposal for so-called net neutrality rules is circulating with members of the Federal Communications Commission—one that critics say could destroy the Internet as we know it.

Although the new proposal isn't yet public, an FCC official confirmed to IDG News Service that it would allow Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to charge companies like Facebook, Google, and Microsoft for faster delivery of their traffic to home users. But the FCC would also require ISPs to provide a "baseline level of service to their subscribers."

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The problem, critics say, is that allowing preferential treatment for traffic from companies able to pay would by its very definition be discriminatory and not in line with the concept of net neutrality. The new rules appear to be spearheaded by FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, a former cable and wireless industry lobbyist.

Critics are calling the new rules a potential death blow to the Internet.

In The New Yorker, author, Columbia Law School professor, and technology critic called the new plan a "payola payment" scheme. In The Guardian, Dan Gillmor said the plan was a "potentially tragic turning point in American politics and policy," while advocacy group Public Knowledge says the proposal would allow "ISPs to impose a new price of entry for innovation on the Internet."

So what is net neutrality and why do the new FCC rules have so many people concerned? Here's a quick rundown of what you need to know.

What is net neutrality?

Net neutrality is the basic premise that all Internet traffic is treated equally whether it's a basic search on Google, a visit to a personal blog, or watching a video on Vimeo. ISPs will not slow down one kind of traffic in favor of speeding up another.

There are some nuances this definition ignores, but that's basically the core net neutrality ideal: Equal treatment for all traffic packets traveling across the Internet.

Net neutrality only applies to wired broadband providers such as Comcast, Cox, and Verizon. As has always been the case, wireless providers would not be subject to the FCC's net neutrality regulations.

Why is net neutrality considered so important?

Although not enshrined in law, the idea that all packets should be treated as more or less equal has been a defining principle for the Internet so far. Without an open Internet, small companies would have a harder time competing against entrenched interests with big pockets that can afford to have their traffic prioritized over others. That could result in less competition and a less vibrant Internet economy where small businesses are wiped out by crushing traffic fees. 

Why is the FCC proposing new rules?

The latest FCC regulations are meant to replace net neutrality rules that were struck down by a Washington appeals court in January.

What is the FCC proposing?

The FCC wants to replace its Open Internet rules that were struck down by the court with a new set of rules that have yet to be made fully public. We do know that the new rules will have three broad goals:

  1. That all ISPs must transparently disclose to their subscribers and users all relevant information as to the policies that govern their network;

  2. That no legal content may be blocked; and

  3. That ISPs may not act in a commercially unreasonable manner to harm the Internet, including favoring the traffic from an affiliated entity.

That sounds reasonable, what's so bad about that?

The issue that has critics up in arms is the idea that ISPs would be allowed to give preferential treatment to some types of Internet traffic under "commercially reasonable" terms. What, exactly, that means is not clear.

Wheeler says companies will be held to a high bar for what is considered "commercially reasonable" and that the new rules will not result in "anti-competitive price increases for consumers." Presumably, this is why the FCC will require broadband providers to commit to a "baseline level of service" for customers as a kind of guarantee against runaway price increases. But it's not yet clear how that "baseline level of service" would be defined.

Wheeler's promises aside, the fear is that this proposal will gave tacit approval to a pay-to-play model. Under this scheme, the ISPs can collect fees from online content providers and provide a speed advantage over the content provider's competition—unless the competition also pays for priority speeds. If that happens, it's likely that websites and content providers that can pay the fees will survive, while those that can't will disappear. Studies have shown that users are more likely to leave websites with each second of lag.

The worst case scenario would be if the ISPs were also allowed to institute various speed tier packages for home Internet users. Want to watch online video like Netflix, YouTube, and Vimeo? That'll be either the baseline silver or gold speed plans. Oh, you want your Netflix in HD? That's the extra pricey platinum package.

That may not happen if the FCC's "baseline" guarantee requires particularly robust service. But again, until the full proposal is public we can't be sure. 

In addition, the FCC itself argued in 2010 that allowing pay-for-priority schemes to exist would create less incentive for ISPs to improve their infrastructure, resulting in a worse Internet experience overall—an argument that now seems to be forgotten. 

"If broadband providers can profitably charge edge providers (The FCC term for content providers--Ed.) for prioritized access to end users, they will have an incentive to degrade or decline to increase the quality of the service they provide to non-prioritized traffic. This would increase the gap in quality (such as latency in transmission) between prioritized access and non-prioritized access, induce more edge providers to pay for prioritized access, and allow broadband providers to charge higher prices for prioritized access. Even more damaging, broadband providers might withhold or decline to expand capacity in order to “squeeze” non-prioritized traffic, a strategy that would increase the likelihood of network congestion and confront edge providers with a choice between accepting low-quality transmission or paying fees for prioritized access to end users."

How can I get involved?

During the FCC's rulemaking process, it will have to invite the public to comment on the new proposal with a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM). As the Electronic Frontier Foundation says, the FCC is required by law to respond to public comments, so if you want your voice heard that will be your chance.

Wheeler is already inviting the public to send comments on the new rules directly to him via email to openinternet@fcc.gov. However, sending an email is not in line with the FCC's standard way to invite comments as outlined on the FCC's Website

Keep an eye on the EFF's Deeplinks blog and other advocacy groups such as Public Knowledege and Free Press for more information. You can also contact your local politicians and tell them your opinion on the FCC's proposal.

Finally, if you are already opposed to the FCC's proposed rules there's a petition on WhiteHouse.Gov demanding the FCC institute more conventional net neutrality regulations.

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