You may have heard that the Federal Communications Commission is proposing some new rules for the Internet. Here's what they mean for you, in plain English.
What is the FCC proposing?
The head of the FCC — the nation's top telecom watchdog — has suggested treating Internet providers like it treats telephone companies, with rules designed to preserve what's called "net neutrality."
What's net neutrality, and why would the FCC want to preserve it?
Net neutrality is an idea about fairness. It holds that Internet providers should treat all Web traffic equally and not speed up, slow down or otherwise manipulate Internet content in ways that favor some businesses over others. It means Internet providers shouldn't slow down services like Netflix, and they shouldn't offer Netflix a "fast lane" in exchange for a fee.
The FCC and President Obama believe that if some Web site operators have to pay extra money to get their content to you, that could make it harder for start-ups and small businesses to get off the ground. It would also limit the kinds of services and applications available to you and me. So that's why they're proposing new rules on Internet providers, in an attempt to make sure there's no prioritization of some Web traffic over others.
What do the FCC's proposed rules mean for me?
At the moment? Not much — and that's part of the point. Although opponents of the FCC proposal argue that enacting the rules would cause great harm, its proponents say that the rules are meant to keep the Internet exactly as you see it today. So in theory, if the regulation gets approved, you'll continue using the same Internet you always have.
What's in the proposal, exactly?
The draft rules lay out several key prohibitions on Internet providers. They include: a ban on blocking, meaning that Internet providers won't be able to stop services like Netflix outright; a ban on throttling, or the slowing down of Web traffic; and a ban on paid prioritization, or the speeding up of traffic, particularly in exchange for money.
Backing up these principles is the same law that the FCC uses to oversee traditional phone service: Title II of the Communications Act. With this congressionally granted legal tool, the FCC believes it can police the kinds of abuses I just described.
In addition to covering providers of "fixed" broadband service like Comcast or Cox, the draft rules will also apply to wireless carriers, such as Sprint and T-Mobile. This is a big deal for a number of reasons, but the main one is that wireless carriers have never been subjected to full net neutrality regulation before. So that means any mobile data you use would be "protected" by these rules.
What else is covered?
The proposed regulation also applies to a part of the Internet that's largely hidden, but which consumers got to see in gory detail last year when Netflix signed controversial deals with Comcast, Verizon and other Internet providers. Those deals had Netflix paying an undisclosed sum to put its content on the Internet providers' networks; Netflix regarded those fees as a form of ransom for getting access to the Internet providers' subscribers. The Internet providers argued that Netflix was suddenly dumping way more traffic onto their networks than anyone was prepared to handle or pay for — so Netflix should bear the cost.
People still disagree over who should be responsible for covering the cost of interconnection — or whether everyone should just shut up, get along and agree to interconnect for free. In any case, the FCC's draft rules would seek to ban any kind of shady behavior in this part of the Web. If the regulation gets approved, any deals that look like the Comcast-Netflix spat could be subject to an FCC investigation.
Could these rules have unintended consequences?
Perhaps. Internet providers have warned that the rules, if adopted, will impose costs that discourage them from upgrading their networks and providing better service to consumers.
Even if the rules work, critics add, there's nothing to stop a future Republican-controlled FCC from voting to overturn them. That's an argument for legislation that would clear this up once and for all. (More on that in a bit.)
When do these rules go into effect?
Well, Internet providers are hoping never.
No, but seriously.
Okay. First the draft rules have to survive a vote by the full FCC, which is currently made up of three Democrats and two Republicans. It's safe to assume the Republicans will vote against the chairman's draft rules, meaning he'll have to secure the votes of his fellow Democrats in order to get the rules officially approved.
Once that's done, the regulations will probably be thrown into court by Internet providers who want to keep them from becoming the law of the land. They'll argue the FCC doesn't have the legal authority from Congress to actually do what it's done. Expect wireless carriers to complain especially loudly; they believe they have a rock-solid case that Congress didn't give the FCC the power to regulate mobile broadband under Title II. The FCC flatly disagrees. This part of the debate will be very, very interesting.
All this talk about Congress! Are they going to sit idly by while this unfolds?
Probably not. Republicans on Capitol Hill are furious with the FCC. They want to pass a law that deals with net neutrality and restricts the agency's ability to regulate Internet providers in the future, to be sure it doesn't try something like this again.
Will that GOP-backed bill pass?
In its current form, it looks pretty unlikely. Although top Democrats on key committees appear willing to work with the GOP on legislation in general, there's widespread support among liberals for the FCC's proposal — meaning they see little incentive to reach a bipartisan consensus with Republicans on a net neutrality bill. Undeterred, the chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), has vowed to continue looking for ways to legislate.