The U.S. Federal Communications Commission put strict rules into place today to uphold the principle of net neutrality, ensuring that the internet as we know it will continue to stay "fast, fair and open."
In a 3-to-2 vote, the FCC enacted a new Open Internet Order to replace its Open Internet rules from 2010, which were struck down in federal court last January. In that decision, the court recognized the importance of net neutrality, but determined that the FCC did not have the legal authority to regulate the internet.
Today, the FCC laid the legal foundation for its new rules by reclassifying broadband internet access as a "telecommunications service," rather than an "information service," under Title II of the Communications Act and Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. The order seeks to modernize Title II so it can properly be applied to the internet, forgoing utility-style regulation such as tariffs.
The Open Internet Order implements three rules to maintain net neutrality:
- No Blocking: broadband providers may not block access to legal content, applications, services, or non-harmful devices.
- No Throttling: broadband providers may not impair or degrade lawful Internet traffic on the basis of content, applications, services, or non-harmful devices.
- No Paid Prioritization: broadband providers may not favor some lawful Internet traffic over other lawful traffic in exchange for consideration of any kind—in other words, no "fast lanes." This rule also bans ISPs from prioritizing content and services of their affiliates.
In addition, the order states that ISPs will not be able to "unreasonably interfere with or unreasonably disadvantage" the ability of consumers to use the internet to access the content and services of their choosing, as long as the content is legal. The only exception is for "reasonable network management," not any kind of business-oriented purpose.
The order also contains a provision allowing the FCC to take and investigate complaints about interconnections between ISPs and other services, such as the peering arrangements between Netflix and companies such as Verizon and Comcast. And with today's order, the FCC is applying the rules to mobile broadband service for the first time.
"For over a decade, the Commission has endeavored to protect and promote the open Internet," said Tom Wheeler, chairman of the FCC, in a prepared statement. "Today is the culmination of that effort, as we adopt the strongest possible open Internet protections."
Wheeler, who proposed this plan earlier this month, indicated these regulations are necessary to safeguard the internet from corporate interests.
"Broadband providers have both the economic incentive and the technological capability to abuse their gatekeeper position," said Wheeler. "Our challenge is to achieve two equally important goals: ensure incentives for private investment in broadband infrastructure so the U.S. has world-leading networks and ensure that those networks are fast, fair, and open for all Americans. The Open Internet Order achieves those goals, giving consumers, innovators, and entrepreneurs the 2 protections they deserve, while providing certainty for broadband providers and the online marketplace."
President Obama, who reiterated the necessity of net neutrality in November and exhorted the FCC to implement these kinds of regulations, welcomed the agency's decision and thanked the nearly 4 million Americans who submitted their thoughts on net neutrality to the FCC.
"Today's FCC decision will protect innovation and create a level playing field for the next generation of entrepreneurs — and it wouldn't have happened without Americans like you," said the president in a statement posted to the White House's website.
The Entertainment Software Association, the trade body representing the U.S. game industry, noted that net neutrality is particularly important to gamers.
"Great online video game experiences depend upon low latency, high bandwidth connections," the ESA said in a statement. "We hope that the rule announced today by the FCC will promote continued development of fast online connections while protecting gamers from anti-competitive and discriminatory practices."
Today's vote represents a major victory for net neutrality and its advocates. But the FCC's move to reclassify broadband access under Title II will likely result in years of litigation brought by internet, wireless and cable television providers. Companies like Comcast and Verizon condemned the FCC's decision, with Comcast decrying the "unnecessary regulatory overhang from 80 year-old language and provisions that were never intended to be applied to the Internet," and Verizon mocking the ruling by issuing a press release dated Feb. 26, 1934, made to look like it was typed up on a typewriter.
At this point, one thing is clear: The war for net neutrality isn't over yet.