It's a good day for the internet: Wired just published an op-ed by FCC chairman Tom Wheeler detailing his new proposal for strict net neutrality rules, rules that largely resemble the terrific plan President Obama outlined a few months ago. Great! But let's be real: An opinion piece is not a new policy.
Wheeler's proposal is a great step forward for the free and open internet internet. But there are many more steps to go before we get out the champagne and confetti. Here are the ones we know.
This part should be fairly straightforward. Wheeler's statement of commitment to strict rules that defend net neutrality is a powerful one, but we've yet to see the actual wording of his proposal. Once that wording's out, the FCC commissioners will have to review it, and then, hopefully, votes to approve it at the end of this month. Based on the tenor of the last FCC meeting about net neutrality rules, it sounds like some of the commissioners will support this new plan. But let's not forget that the agency as a whole did pass some pretty shitty rules less than a year ago.
All that said, Chairman Wheeler is taking a much more aggressive stance this time around. It sounds like he's done away with many of the bad things in the rules passed last May. From his Wired piece:
Using this authority, I am submitting to my colleagues the strongest open internet protections ever proposed by the FCC. These enforceable, bright-line rules will ban paid prioritization, and the blocking and throttling of lawful content and services. I propose to fully apply—for the first time ever—those bright-line rules to mobile broadband. My proposal assures the rights of internet users to go where they want, when they want, and the rights of innovators to introduce new products without asking anyone's permission.
Sounds good, chief! Now please convince your commissioners to approve it.
We already know that AT&T and Verizon will challenge these rules in court. AT&T exec Hank Hultquist said as much in a policy blog post this week:
As I said, I have no illusions that any of this will change what happens on February 26th. But when the FCC has to defend reclassification before an appellate court, it will have to grapple with these and other arguments. Those who oppose efforts at compromise because they assume Title II rests on bullet proof legal theories are only deceiving themselves.
That's AT&T essentially saying, "get ready to get sued over this" in a very public forum. Sources told VentureBeat that "Verizon will immediately sue" as well. They're surely not the only ones preparing lawsuits, either. There are a lot of companies that think they'll lose money if the government takes a more aggressive approach to regulating the internet. (They're probably wrong.) We also know that Comcast is content spreading misinformation about the issue, so maybe they'll sue, too.
The unfortunate thing about big telecom's litigious habits is that they've worked in the past. The FCC's old net neutrality rules were struck down in court after Verizon appealed the commission's ruling. Long story short, the court decided that the FCC overstepped its authority, and the agency had to start all over again. We can only hope that Wheeler considered the inevitability of court challenges, when he wrote his proposal. Regardless, these lawsuits will probably take years to get resolved.
The FCC only has the power to regulate the internet because Congress gave it that power. And Congress can take it away, if it wants. We know that lawmakers on Capitol Hill have considered this possibility as well, because they held hearings that specifically asked whether the FCC was really up for the job. Luckily for me and you and everyone we know on the internet, the folks that testified before Congress largely agreed that the FCC is the best agency to handle this sort of thing.
Wheeler actually addressed this today. After pointing out how the agency mandates guaranteed open access commitment to networking equipment in the 1960s and helped give birth to the internet, the former entrepreneur points out the the FCC rules for keeping phone networks open meant that AOL beat his cable-based startup to becoming the world's biggest internet service provider at the time. In fewer words:
The Congress gave the FCC broad authority to update its rules to reflect changes in technology and marketplace behavior in a way that protects consumers. Over the years, the Commission has used this authority to the public's great benefit.
Wow, the FCC in 2015 sounds a lot cooler than the FCC in 2014, huh?
Here's the thing: These so-called net neutrality rules are a specific set of policy directives that will have a specific impact on how the internet works. However, the larger idea of net neutrality that people have spent years fighting for is about much, much more than policy. It's about the fate of a so-far very open technology that allows billions of people to share information and communicate.
The internet is also a business, though. AT&T and Verizon are upset because they think stricter regulations will endanger their profit margins. Companies like Netflix are worried because they think less strict regulations will endanger their business. Startups are excited about net neutrality because so far the free and open internet has yielded an incredible new industry that generates billions of dollars in revenue for whomever can think of the next neat thing.
So if we assume that the FCC passes the rules and bet that the lawsuits fail to strike them down, we also have to remember that no single set of rules can guarantee a bright future for the free and open internet. That fight will continue for years as huge cable companies try to merge and as Americans wrestle with crappy broadband speeds and hackers try to infiltrate our networks.
The great news is that more people than ever are standing up to fight for the free and open internet. But the fight is far from over.