It's official: As of Friday morning, the Federal Communications Commission's net neutrality rules became the law of the land when a federal court rebuffed a plea by Internet providers to block the regulation. Here's exactly what they do, and what you can expect:
First things first: Is my Internet experience going to change?
No, at least not right away. And that's the point: The government's rules are aimed at ensuring that you can keep getting to the Web sites you want to visit, watching the videos you want to watch and downloading the files you want to keep, all without interference from Internet providers.
What do the rules do?
There are a few parts to them. First are what the agency calls its three "bright-line" rules: No blocking. No throttling. No paid prioritization.
No blocking means Internet providers are banned from blocking legitimate traffic on their networks -- they can't stop you from visiting crazy tentacle porn sites, if you so wished. No throttling means Internet providers can't degrade your Web experience by slowing down your sites. And no paid prioritization means Internet providers aren't allowed to selectively speed up content in exchange for payments from Web site operators such as Netflix.
Whom do the rules apply to?
Anyone who provides Internet service: cable companies, such as Comcast, telecom companies, such as Verizon, and even wireless carriers, such as T-Mobile and Sprint.
You said that's just the first part.
That's right. The next part is a little more vague, because the government says it isn't sure what kinds of abuses Internet providers might try to engage in down the road — so it's preserving some flexibility.
The net neutrality rules set up a "general conduct" standard that basically warns carriers not to misbehave, or else. The standard can be used by the FCC to police Internet provider behaviors that it deems a threat to competition, innovation, free expression and the future of broadband deployment, among other things.
This gives the agency wide-ranging powers, and even advocates of aggressive net neutrality have reservations about this part of the policy. The Electronic Frontier Foundation has said that actually bringing a case under the general conduct standard would be an expensive process that only the wealthiest companies can afford, and the policy risks giving the FCC too much latitude.
The rules also set up a way to adjudicate disputes in a part of the Web that consumers rarely see, but bubbled to the surface when Netflix got into a nasty fight with Internet providers. The fight was essentially over whether Netflix had to pay to drop a growing amount of data at the doorstep of broadband companies. The FCC's net neutrality regulations make it so that these fights will happen less often, by offering a place for companies to file a complaint if they believe the private deals for "interconnection" are unfair.
If the FCC is asserting so much power, how does it justify these rules?
This is exactly the issue that Internet providers have raised with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. They argue that the FCC broke the law when it decided to classify broadband companies under Title II of the Communications Act — the same law the agency uses to oversee legacy telephone service.
By declaring Internet providers to be legally equivalent to telecom companies, the FCC gave itself the authority to apply strict bans on certain kinds of behavior. Internet providers say they have no plans to engage in the kind of activities covered under the FCC's bright-line bans. But last year, the D.C. Circuit agreed with the FCC that Internet providers have both the financial incentive and the technical capabilities to engage in such abuses.
What's going to happen in the long term?
Well, Internet providers are suing to have the rules overturned. Industry officials predict the court case will go to oral arguments in December or January. If they win, then the FCC is back at square one. If they lose, the rules will stand.
Congress may try to take another shot at replacing the FCC's rules with legislation. Some net neutrality advocates worry that a bill would be weaker than what's now on the books, while others say legislation is necessary to prevent a future FCC from deliberately undermining or rolling back the rules.
Opponents are arguing that the regulations will raise the cost of Internet service and reduce the pace at which they can roll out network upgrades. The FCC disputes this outright. Both sides claim to have numbers to back up their analyses, but really, it's just the industry's word against the government's — a big game of he-said, she-said.
But for now, one thing is clear: The government has stronger tools than ever to monitor Internet providers.