February 9, 2014

Net neutrality and the flow of information

You may have seen the recent cartoon on the Editorial page of the Press-Republican (Jan. 23, 2014) depicting a tank in the process of demolishing a wall.

The tank is labeled “AT&T, Verizon, Comcast,” the wall is labeled “net neutrality” and the caption is “So much for a free Internet...” Your reaction might well have been “What the heck is net neutrality and what exactly is the problem?”

Simply put, the concept of network neutrality is that: all users of the Internet should be treated fairly and equally — this includes end users like you and me as well as giant Internet service providers (ISPs) like AT&T, Verizon and Comcast. Until Jan 14, 2014, it was assumed that the Federal Communications Commission would regulate the ISPs in much the same way they regulate the phone company providers (e.g Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, etc).

However, one of these providers (Verizon) contested this regulation in 2011, suggesting instead a tiered Internet service whereby a user could pay more to get better, faster Internet service. On the other side of the fence, “Neutrality proponents claim that telecommunications companies seek to impose a tiered service model in order to control the pipeline and thereby remove competition, create artificial scarcity, and oblige subscribers to buy their otherwise uncompetitive services” ( Comcast was accused of a violation of net neutrality in 2012 when it was discovered that it was favoring delivery of its own video streaming service over competitors such as Netflix and Hulu. Interestingly, both sides claim that their model promotes innovation, which will stimulate the economy.

This issue has been working its way through the court system and now the D.C. Circuit Court has ruled the FCC “cannot subject companies that provide Internet service to the same type of regulation that the agency imposes on phone companies ... because Internet service was not a telecommunications service — like telephone or telegraph — but an information service, a classification that limits the F.C.C.’s authority,” according to a New York Times article. So, due to a fine legal distinction between a “utility” and an “information service,” the FCC’s authority to regulate certain media has apparently been hamstrung.

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