The Federal Communications Commission voted 3-2 Thursday to approve net neutrality rules that allow for the federal regulation of broadband Internet providers. Chairman Tom Wheeler called the vote an affirmation of "free, open access to the Internet." Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., called the decision a "massive government takeover that threatens innovation, economic freedom and jobs."
Do the rules ensure the protection of the open Internet or stifle it with pointless regulations, and what's next?
Q: What is net neutrality?
A: Net neutrality simply means treating all Web traffic the same. Also known as open Internet, the concept is that all content should be equally easy to access, without service providers blocking some websites and services or giving favorable treatment to others.
Q: What did the FCC do?
A: Thursday's vote clears the way for the commission to do two main things. First, it will reclassify the Internet as a telecommunications service. This means the Internet can be regulated the same way that public utilities such as telephone lines are. Second, the agency can then use that regulatory power to enforce strong net neutrality.
Q: What do these net neutrality rules mean?
A: Internet service providers such as AT&T, Comcast and Verizon can't intentionally slow down your videos, games or websites. They can't block legal content or throttle the traffic of competing apps and services. For the first time, the rules will apply to both broadband and wireless Internet, which includes the mobile data to your smartphone or tablet.
The new rules also stop ISPs from charging companies with deep pockets extra for "fast lanes" to speed up their traffic. The goal is to preserve the even playing field that in the past has allowed start-ups such as Facebook and YouTube to get off the ground.
Q: What does this change for me?
A: The net neutrality victory won't make "House of Cards" stream on your Netflix any faster. While the FCC decision is a major turning point in how the Internet is governed, the new rules won't affect your everyday Web surfing right now. Customers already pay for different Internet speeds. It just puts laws in place that prevent ISPs from discriminating against streaming video, music or Web content.
Opponents claim that reclassifying the Internet may result in taxes and fees for consumers, allegations that FCC's Wheeler has denied. Your Internet bill is still likely to go up, because of the lack of competition in most markets in the country. On the other hand, the ruling is likely to lead to more transparency between ISPs and consumers.
Q: What happens next?
A: Expect a drawn-out legal battle. Telecom giants including Comcast, AT&T and Verizon have already threatened to sue. Congress also might challenge the new rules. Republicans have proposed their own bill, which would protect net neutrality while stopping the FCC from exerting its powers online.
If there's one thing all sides agree on, it's that the debate over the role of government in the Internet has just begun.
Tribune News Service