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House Republicans voted to prevent [subscription required] the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) from implementing new rules intended to regulate Internet Service Providers (ISPs). Specifically, the House Subcommittee on Communications and Technology, by a 15-8 vote along party lines, approved a measure that would invalidate FCC net neutrality rules intended to give the agency the authority to regulate how ISPs allocate or “throttle” Internet user’s bandwidth. The next step for the measure, which invalidates rules that the FCC passed in December, is to go to the Energy and Commerce Committee for a full committee vote.
The two rules at issue classify broadband providers into two categories: wireless broadband providers (like AT&T Wireless, Verizon Wireless, and T-Mobile) and wireline broadband providers (think Comcast, Time Warner, and RCN).
The first rule requires transparency from both categories of providers in how they manage the data flow in their network pipelines. While seemingly mundane, “network data management practices” can range from the annoying to the disruptive because an ISP may not like the amount of data you are using by watching Netflix or that you are watching Netflix to begin with. Also, it’s already in use. The second rule, which applies to both classes of providers but in different ways, prohibits ISPs from blocking traffic over the Internet altogether (rather than a simple throttling down of consumer’s Internet speed). This rule is intended to prevent broadband service providers, which are becoming ever more entangled with content producers, from blocking sites of competing companies. Consider a world where your Comcast cable modem won’t take you to Fox.com to watch the newest episode of “Glee” because Fox is a competitor of the Comcast-owned NBC show “The Event” and doesn’t want you drawn in.
At the moment, it does not seem like House Republicans will win this particular battle since President Obama is a supporter of net neutrality rules and doesn’t have to sign what Congress sends him. Even so, the net neutrality battle is far from over. As JETLawBlog has noted before FCC authority to promulgate net neutrality rules is on shaky ground — something not lost on any of the FCC commissioners (though some have been more vocal). In any event, Congress may look simply to defund the FCC if it continues its current course.
These two rules strike at the very heart of net neutrality — a phrase that is probably hard to grasp for the average consumer. At its core, proponents of net neutrality want ISPs to treat all bits of data — the packets of info that contain the movies, news sites, music, etc. — equally. That is, ISPs should be agnostic or “neutral” to what kind of information (and from where) users decide to bring into their homes using that ISP’s broadband service. Throttling or outright denial of access to a particular Internet site is akin to your electric company allowing you to use a particular unit of electricity for your light bulb, but just not for your oven. Or worse, the water company charging you more for toilet water than for dishwasher water. The electric company does not distinguish how you use the exact same electricity and nor does the water company care how you use that last marginal gallon of water. Why should ISPs care (or be allowed to care if they’re self-interested) how you used that last marginal packet of data?
In a world where data has become almost as important and ubiquitous as electricity, issues related to net neutrality will only become more important. But given the odd bedfellows and new rivalries, net neutrality’s battle lines are yet undeveloped. Net neutrality, as a legislative issue, simply does not fit neatly into the traditional paradigms. This vote simply reflects that confusion.
– David Rutenberg
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