Net neutrality is a fairly simple concept: Everything online is free to access as fast as your connection and the servers can manage, without ISPs blocking access to any lawful site. A recent ruling by the D.C. Circuit US Court of Appeals in the case of Verizon vs the FCC could undermine this entire concept.
In short, Verizon won its case and Internet toll roads may be on their way. The telecom giant argued that if the FCC’s net neutrality doctrine was not in place, “we could be exploring those commercial arrangements.” Obviously it’s in the interest of ISPs to explore the idea of a fast lane, because nobody likes a slow connection; not consumers, or companies like Netflix. Big providers would likely be willing to pay the ISPs hand-over-fist for preferential treatment.
On the other hand, Verizon also claims to be “committed to an open Internet” and that the court’s decision won’t change this commitment. The seemingly conflicting statements beg the question why Verizon pursued the case in the first place. While there may be no immediate change, the danger for consumers is that there is now legal precedent for Verizon to pursue a fast lane.
Still, there may be a silver lining for the consumers and the FCC. In light of the decision, the agency will have to redefine its mission and may have to work with the rest of the federal government to implement new laws. The court also found that there is a basic mandate for the FCC to “promulgate rules governing broadband providers.” Perhaps the FCC will be able to gain greater leeway to regulate the Internet and service providers.
FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler inspires less confidence with his lukewarm interest in appealing the decision. Wheeler says he is “committed to maintaining our networks as engines for economic growth, test beds for innovative services and products.” Whether this innovation includes a fast lane in unclear, but Wheeler has supported the idea in the past.
Let’s just hope that we can access CNN and NYT without buying a ‘news bundle’ from our ISP, or maybe we won’t be able to access Twitter and Facebook without the ‘social bundle.’