We’ve all heard that the Internet is really the Wild West of telecommunications, and apparently a federal appeals court agrees. On Tuesday the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled that the Federal Communications Commission, the federal regulatory agency that regulates telephone and related companies, lacks the authority to require broadband providers to give equal treatment to all Internet traffic flowing over their networks.
Net neutrality, as it has come to be called, stands for the premise that private enterprise should not discriminate or preference certain internet content over others. The decision specifically concerned the efforts of Comcast, the nation’s largest cable provider to slow down customers’ access to BitTorrent, a service used to exchange large video files.
When the F.C.C. learned of the practice it directed Comcast to stop and in 2008 issued broader rules mandating that all Internet content should be treated equally by network providers.
The impact of Tuesday’s ruling will be far-reaching. It will allow Internet service providers to restrict consumer’s ability to access certain kinds of Internet content such as vide sites like YouTube and Hulu.com and charge certain heavy Internet users more money for access.
Both consumer advocates and large producers of Web content like Google and Microsoft have grave concerns about the ruling. Google and Microsoft worry that Internet service providers will collude for pricing policies that would stifle innovation and consumer choice. Given that the F.C.C. has just released a national broadband plan aimed at making broadband more accessible and affordable for rural communities and other under-served populations. Tuesday’s ruling throws that plan into serious question.
The next steps remain a little cloudy. On the one hand, the ruling could finally get Congress to act by passing a federal law specifically governing net neutrality, a principle supported by the Obama administration. But any Congressional action would take years to develop and implement, and given the Republicans unwillingness to work on anything that remotely assists average Americans, would be an uphill battle. On the other, the ruling does bring Comcast’s efforts at buying a majority state in NBC Universal under close scrutiny for anti-trust problems as members of Congress have expressed concerns that the purchase would give Comcast the power to favor the content of its own cable and broadcast channels over competitors.
For the time being Comcast is promising to behave itself and not do anything like favor certain content over others, but that’s hardly a promise to believe since it was that very practice that initiated the F.C.C. action in the first place. It would be great to see the same Republicans that applauded the Citizens United decision on the basis of “free speech” condemn this latest ruling on those same grounds. But I’m not holding my breath.
photo courtesy of Velo Steve via Flickr