Net Neutrality: 1 — ISPs: Zero

As of Thursday, February 26, 2015, let the scoreboard show one point for Net Neutrality and zero points for Internet Services Providers (ISPs). Last year I discussed the looming battle that was taking place between ISPs and millions of everyday internet content consumers, like you and I. An end to this battle was scheduled on Thursday, February 26th 2015, where like judges in a long 12 round boxing match without a clear knockout, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) had to decide on the fate of Net Neutrality. In a 3-2 split decision, the FCC ruled in favor of reclassifying broadband Internet (both wired and wireless) under Title II of the Communications Act.

How Does Reclassification Maintain Net Neutrality?

Prior to this ruling there were no real boundaries for ISPs when it came to how they can treat data traversing their networks based on the data content source. Meaning, an ISP if it so chooses, was able to slow down or throttle data from Netflix being delivered to an end user’s Roku player. Furthermore, not unlike the manner of a mafia pizzo, an ISP can strongly “encourage” content providers like a Netflix, that take up a lot of bandwidth, to pay a fee in order to guarantee that their movie streaming content makes it to the end user quickly and efficiently, without any lag or buffering. The FCC ruling for reclassification now allows for the government to look at the Internet as an essential utility, in a similar manner as it does for electricity and water.

ISPs like Comcast, Verizon and AT&T see this reclassification as a loss because under these new rules they will be forced to make their operations more transparent to not only the government, but also to the general public. They will now have to operate in an environment of strict regulation and can no longer even attempt to discriminate data traversing their networks based on the source. These new rules ensure that large content providers like Netflix and Hulu will not have to pony-up extra dollars to get their content to the end users, but more importantly, it ensures that new and smaller companies will not have to fear for their content being stuck in an Internet slow lane because they cannot afford to pay a ‘shakedown’ premium. Entrepreneurs and smaller content providers become the real winners in this reclassification. This new ruling maintains a level playing field where all data packets are treated equally. The internet does not need a ‘Data Caste System.’

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Image credit: NPR Blog

The Fight Is Not Over

This battle victory for Net Neutrality does not mean the ‘war’ is over. Without a doubt ISPs, wireless providers, and possibly some congressional opponents will take these rulings to court. These opponents will argue that government should not have a hand in the operations of the Internet. It will be argued that the Internet worked just fine without government intervention and as such should remain this way. They will argue that the reclassification is placing the Internet into the antiquated Title II of the Communications Act, and as such will stifle business and innovation. And to some small degree they are right. However, in my opinion, the alternative path is much worse. The path where corporations are unregulated and free to make the rules, regardless of how that affects overall user experience and entrepreneurship. This is certainly not over and could potentially be a very long legal battle, but for now this is a victory worth celebrating. As FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler stated moments before the deciding vote, “The Internet is simply too important to allow broadband providers to be the ones making the rules.”