Net Neutrality: The FCC’s Vote and What It Means
Last week, the Federal Communications Commission voted 3-2 to keep the net neutrality rule, which gives the agency clearer authority to police Internet providers. Cable and telecom companies had been campaigning to revise or discard the rule, which stems from Title II of the Communications Act of 1934 -- designed to regulate interstate telephone services -- so they could move some content over their networks at higher speeds and charge content providers a premium.
The content providers – companies like Amazon and Netflix – and consumer groups opposed the change. Last year, the satirist Jon Oliver weighed in with a biting take on the issue and urged his viewers to post comments on the FCC website in favor of keeping the rule. Aram Sinnreich, an assistant professor of journalism and media studies in the School of Communication and Information, has been following the controversy. Sinnreich studies the business of mass communication and is the author of Mashed Up: Music, Technology and the Rise of Configurable Culture (University of Massachusetts Press, 2010) and The Piracy Crusade: How the Music Industry’s War on Sharing Destroys Markets and Erodes Civil Liberties (University of Massachusetts Press, 2013).
Rutgers Today asked Sinnreich to help us understand what is at stake in the controversy.
What exactly is the net neutrality rule, and why is this vote important?
Sinnreich: Under this rule, internet service providers may not prioritize information from one publisher or service over another, which means that indies, upstarts and innovators can reach consumers just as fast and just as reliably as giants like Disney, Google or Facebook. This helps our cultures and industries remain diverse and innovative. It also keeps costs low because online services don't have to pay extra money to reach us – which means they won't have to pass those costs on down to us – and prevents “integrated" behemoths like Comcast and Time Warner, which own both ISPs and content companies, from discriminating against competing services. That means they can’t keep us locked inside their tiny digital universes. Instead, we get access to the whole digital universe, no matter which company we use to connect.
Many other countries don't have such a rule. Do their citizens suffer for not having it?
Sinnreich: Nations without open internet rules suffer in a variety of ways. Some of these are obvious – for instance, the censorship of online political speech in China. Others are more subtle. For instance, in some countries ISPs block third-party VoIP services like Skype, because they compete with the ISPs' own, more expensive telephony services. In every case, countries without net neutrality suffer from a diminished public sphere, less competition, higher costs and lower quality of service.
Is this attempt by the cable and telecom companies to overturn net neutrality dead, or can we expect the rule to be gone if the Republicans win the presidential election next year and appoint a majority of the FCC?
Sinnreich: Unfortunately, though the "open internet" has won this battle, the war is only beginning. Without strong bipartisan legislation protecting net neutrality, American Internet users are subject to the political whims of the FCC, and those are sure to change as quickly and as often as the drapes on the White House windows.
Jon Oliver delivered a 13-minute riff on the cable and telecom industries last fall, at the end of which he urged his viewers to send comments to the FCC demanding the netneutrality rule be retained. Four million people did so.
Is that likely to happen again?
Sinnreich: It’s uncommon for a wonky policy issue to rise to such a level of citizen awareness, let alone coordinated citizen action.
While Oliver's net neutrality segment was unquestionably crucial in making the case that there is widespread support for Title II oversight by the FCC (or at least for the open internet principle), there is a law of diminishing returns for this tactic. If Oliver asked his viewers to submit comments to a different federal agency each week, the numbers would likely diminish to the point where only a small cadre of fervent fans would continue to participate. Thus, these kinds of tactics should be reserved for crucial moments in policymaking that carry widely applicable civil rights implications, and in which citizen voices will play a make-or-break role. Voting rights and climate change are two such issues that could potentially fit this bill.