After 10 months on the shelf, the Federal Communications Commission's rules on net neutrality were finally published today in the Federal Register.
As written, the rules do three broad things for customers:
- Add transparency to how broadband providers--both wired and wireless--manage networks
- Prohibit wired broadband providers from blocking lawful content, applications, services, and non-harmful devices. Wireless providers are also barred from blocking lawful websites or applications that compete with voice or video services.
- Forbid wired broadband providers from discriminating in the transmission of lawful network traffic.
However, just because the rules have been published doesn't necessarily mean they'll take effect on November 20, as they're supposed to. This is because we expect both wired and wireless providers to challenge these rules in the courts--the way Verizon and MetroPCS challenged them back in January. The Verizon and MetroPCS cases were tossed, but only because the rules hadn't been finalized.
Approval of the rules in December 2010 was strictly along party lines. Three Democrats voted yes for the rules; two Republicans voted no. Since that time, one of the Republicans has accepted a job at Comcast.
Comcast actually spurred the FCC into action after it throttled BitTorrent traffic on its network. The FCC tried to penalize Comcast for this move, but a court ruled against the agency--since the FCC had no rules on net neutrality, it couldn't penalize Comcast for violating anything.
"The rules developed by the FCC take important steps to ensure that the Internet remains an open marketplace," Parul P. Desai, policy counsel for the Consumers Union, said in a statement.
"When purchasing Internet service, consumers rightfully expect that they will have equal access to all that the Web offers and shouldn't be held back because of industry tactics," Desai added. "For the first time, there will be clear rules to protect consumers and keep the Internet growing as an open, innovative environment."
President and co-founder o Public Knowledge Gigi B. Sohn wishes the rules were stronger--but says the regulations are a "good start."
"Companies providing Internet access services have informally abided by a neutrality policy since the FCC acted," Sohn said in a statement. "In that time, the Internet has not come crashing down and the government has not taken control over it."
Still, the rules and their creators have critics.
"The rules passed in December are riddled with loopholes," Matt Wood, policy director for Free Press told PCWorld in an e-mail. "They don't do enough to stop the phone and cable companies from dividing the Internet into fast and slow lanes, and they fail to protect wireless users from discrimination that is already occurring in the marketplace and that will only get worse."
"Even in their watered-down form, the rules might do some good," Wood acknowledges. "But that would require a vigilant FCC to carefully monitor and address complaints. This Commission's track record suggests that it isn't inclined to take decisive action to protect consumers."