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On Tuesday, the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit struck a possibly fatal blow to the Federal Communications Commission's net neutrality rules. The case, brought by Verizon against the FCC, has significant implications for the future of Internet access. But while the 2-1 ruling may seem like a death knell for the open Internet, there's still hope that net neutrality can live on.
Net neutrality isn't just a popular buzzword; it's the guiding concept behind a set of rules adopted by the FCC in 2010. The Open Internet rules are intended to promote Internet service provider transparency, and prevent ISPs from blocking or unreasonably discriminating against lawful online content. However, the appeals court ruled that the FCC doesn't have the authority to dictate how ISPs grant access to content, though the agency retained its ability to regulate broadband providers on more general terms.
The trouble for consumers is that this ruling leaves room for provider abuses. Without regulation from the FCC, broadband providers could "either block competing internet services on their landline networks, or charge those companies extra for features like guaranteed delivery or higher performance," according to Engadget. For example, an ISP like Comcast could feasibly ask a website like DealNews to pay a fee to guarantee Comcast customers access to the site. If our site chose to pay, then another ISP like Verizon could block its users' access to this article because our site was working with a competitor. And because many ISPs have a monopoly over the broadband in their service areas, consumers will just have to deal with throttled speeds and blocked sites — or give up their Internet access.
All is not yet lost for net neutrality. Tuesday's ruling is likely to be appealed, if not by the FCC, then by consumer advocacy groups. Another option would be for Congress to pass a law giving the FCC more power to regulate broadband, but that seems unlikely in the current political climate. According to Slate, the best option would be for the FCC to rewrite its rules, so it can stop classifying the Internet services provided by cable and phone companies as "information services" (which it does not have the authority to regulate), and instead treat them as "telecommunications services" (which the FCC does have authority over).
For what it's worth, in its response to the court's decision, Verizon offered its assurance that customers wouldn't see interruptions in their Internet access: "Verizon has been and remains committed to the open Internet that provides consumers with competitive choices and unblocked access to lawful websites and content when, where, and how they want." Verizon echoed the sentiments of other Internet providers and net neutrality opponents when it hailed the decision, saying it will foster innovation in the marketplace and give customers more choices.
Despite Verizon's rosy words, the reality is that for the time being we are at the mercy of our ISPs. The good news is that the public outrage generated by this decision is likely to spur the FCC to action in quickly repairing the damage to its net neutrality rules.
Readers, how do you feel about the ruling? Will you be closely monitoring your ISP for abuses in the coming months, or do you think this whole net neutrality thing has been blown out of proportion? Give us your take in the comments below!