A seemingly obscure legal decision was reached this week, but it affects our use and enjoyment of the Internet, and ensures that we won’t be charged more for it. The decision upheld the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) regulation that supports net neutrality.
Net neutrality means that the Internet service providers or broadband carriers treat all data that travels over their networks in exactly the same way, much like our telephone service and power are regulated. It’s the way the Internet has worked since its inception and we know how the Internet has transformed our lives in nearly everything we do. It’s also spawned innovation and many new companies to create products and services we never imagined.
But for many years, there has been an effort to change all this, led by the broadband carriers Comcast, Verizon, and AT&T. They’ve wanted to offer different classes of Internet services, one that provides faster speeds and better access to those websites that pay, and a slower access speed for those that don’t want to pay.
It was a way for these companies with with limited competition to generate more revenue, but it would also mean that the bigger companies that could pay more for faster service would receive preferential treatment for their content, compared to smaller startup companies that could not afford to pay.
Three years ago when these rules were being formulated by the FCC, a groundswell of users spoke up in support of net neutrality, more than any other regulation in recent history. Four million citizens emailed and called the FCC objecting to any changes away from net neutrality. When comedian John Oliver explained on HBO’s “Last Week Tonight” what was being proposed that might compromise net neutrality, it generated 45,000 responses to the agency in just a few minutes.
Opposition also came from the major technology companies such as Amazon, Google, Facebook, and Netflix. The Internet Association, the organization representing nearly 40 tech companies, including those above, also filed a formal petition in opposition. They want companies to compete by being able to attract customers based on their products and services, not on speed of access.
Next Page: How the citizens beat the lobbyists, and what this decision means for you.
But the broadband carriers appealed the FCC regulations, and this past week the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in a 2-to-1 decision upheld the FCC‘s regulation that prevents broadband companies from blocking or slowing down the delivery of Internet content to consumers. The court agreed with the FCC’s desire to treat broadband as a utility, so that consumers would get full and equal access to whatever content we choose, without being subject to manipulation by the carriers.
Tom Wheeler, chairman of the FCC, said, “After a decade of debate and legal battles, today’s ruling affirms the commission’s ability to enforce the strongest possible Internet protections — both on fixed and mobile networks — that will ensure the Internet remains open, now and in the future.”
This is a very good example of how citizens en masse have been able to counter the power of the broadband carriers and their huge lobbying efforts in Congress. Comcast, Verizon, and AT&T have some of the largest lobbying efforts in Washington, yet failed to counter the public outcry.
Writing for the court, Judges David Tatel and Sri Srinivasan said that the Internet needs to be regulated using the same approach as our telephone system, because the Internet is playing such a unique role in everyday commerce and communications.
The judges noted, “Given the tremendous impact third-party internet content has had on our society, it would be hard to deny its dominance in the broadband experience. Over the past two decades, this content has transformed nearly every aspect of our lives, from profound actions like choosing a leader, building a career, and falling in love to more quotidian ones like hailing a cab and watching a movie.”
In spite of their loss, the carriers vowed to continue their appeal. The citizen activists will be waiting.