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).

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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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4 Responses to Congress Not Partisan Neutral on Net Neutrality

  1. Jason says:

    The concern may be there from a regulator’s perspective, but that doesn’t mean that Comcast would actually follow through. With a variety of ISP choices (e..g, cable companies, telephone companies, satellite internet companies), it wouldn’t really be in Comcast’s interest to block NBC competitors. Consumers could just use another company’s services instead.

  2. David Rutenberg says:

    @T: Good point in regards to the FCC and on the nature of what is to be “preserved.” I would add to your comment that the root of the matter isn’t that the FCC is politically week per se, but perhaps that their statutory hooks to take meaningful action on net neutrality have little legal ground. An egregious violation would probably have to spur constituents to write Congress to give FCC new statutory authority.

    @Jason: I like your point distinguishing utilities and ISPs. I would just like to point out that the first rule is intended to make to make transparent how broadband providers handle their data – anyone who has paid a water bill or electric bill is well aware that their are different pricing levels depending on consumption. The so-called “unlimited” data plans (and especially the particularly ultra high-end ones with their premium prices) are not so transparent about what you they do to limit/throttle/charge premiums on the data you bring into your home). Most consumers rightfully believe that unlimited at a particular speed is just that – unlimited at that speed. Some companies (re: wireless and more recently wireline AT&T U-verse) have confronted this issue by offering data-capped plans, where there is no unlimited mirage. Whether contract-based data-capping is good for the Internet is a little beyond the scope of this post as it is ancillary to net neutrality since data neutral management can still occur on an openly capped plan

    On your second point, net neutrality encompasses a few issues. One is throttling based on usage but another is throttling (or maybe blocking) based on content. This is so much a concern that the FCC wants Comcast to promise that it will not interfere with non-NBC content for 7 years once all is said and done (http://mediadecoder.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/01/18/f-c-c-approves-comcast-nbc-deal/). I can’t speak to what the Republicans or Democrats want, but I can say that this is a concern generally and an issue related to net neutrality.

  3. Jason says:

    Where the utility analogy falls short is that the electric and water companies charge different people different amounts based on their consumption. Internet companies, on the other hand, charge a flat fee to everybody. While that sounds great in principle, some users hog bandwidth with constant HD streaming, downloading, and uploading. This causes everybody else’s connections to slow down.

    What the Republicans actually want to do is not let Comcast block access to Fox’s website but instead allow companies to charge the high-data users larger costs. So-called “net neutrality” would not let them do so.

  4. T. says:

    Appreciate the comparison to electric and water utilities, it really captures what this issue is about IMO. What’s really frustrating, however, is how utterly ineffective the FCC has been at explaining this issue not only to the public, but the congress as well. Republicans are arguing against government intervention, saying the internet works just fine the way it is. Ironically, net neutrality rules would accomplish just that; preserve the internet as it is! With an FCC as politically weak as the one we have now, I’m guessing the best we can hope for is to wait until a truly egregious violation occurs to make the general public care about this issue.