FCC Votes to Enshrine Net Neutrality — For Now

On Thursday afternoon, following nearly three hours of debate, testimony and repeated praise of the more than four million Americans who submitted a record number of comments, the Federal Communications Commission, in Washington, D.C., approved the regulation of the Internet as a utility under Title II of the Communications Act. Put simply, the regulation is intended to protect consumers and content creators alike from having to suffer slower speeds for accessing websites that are unable or unwilling to pay tolls for faster service.

After first approving, by the same 3-2 vote, a memorandum and order from towns in North Carolina and Tennessee to create better access to broadband Internet service, the FCC heard from Julie Veach, chief of the Wireline Competition Bureau, along with founder of Etsy and the executive producer of the on-again-off-again TV show The Killing, who gave emotional testimony about how the Internet allowed them to create content that might otherwise be unseen.

The commission then heard testimony, via video, from Sir Tim Berners-Lee, credited as being the inventor of the World Wide Web, who said the ability to create programming and design and post websites without having to request permission or approval has allowed the world to advance and share information in ways never previously imagined.

“More than anything else, the action you take today will preserve the ethos of permission-less innovation that’s always been at the heart of the Internet,” he said.

The two commissioners who spoke strongly, and for great stretches of time, in opposition to regulating the Internet as a utility, said there was no problem to be solved that demanded such action, let alone at this time.

“The Internet is not broken,” said Commissioner Ajit Pai. Instead, the alleged the FCC was only taking this action because “President Obama told us to,” referring to the president’s statement, released November 10, asking the FCC to do all it could and pass strong regulation protecting open access to the Internet.

“The courts will ultimately decide this order’s fate,” Pai said. “Litigants are already lawyering up to seek judicial review of these new rules. Given the order’s many glaring legal flaws, they will have plenty of fodder.”

He and fellow commissioner Michael O’Rielly insisted that the Title II classification would result in upwards of $11 billion in new taxes for consumer annually, in addition to a stall in innovation and investment in the nation’s broadband network. Both commissioners also lamented that the FCC did not open the proposed regulation for notice-and-comment rulemaking, which would have allowed Americans to review the regulation before voting on it, something the FCC was not required to do and has not done in its history.

“This shift to regulate Internet traffic exchange highlights that the Commission’s real end game has become imposing Title II on all parts of the Internet, not just setting up net neutrality rules,” O’Rielly said. “In subjecting a thriving, competitive market to regulation in the name of net neutrality, the Commission is trying to use a small hook and a thin line to reel in a very large whale. This line will surely break.”

In addressing the commission and the standing-room-only crowd gathered for the public meeting, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, a former telecom lobbyist, made bold statements about the importance of keeping the Internet fast, fair and open for users.

He added that the four million comments submitted “has made this the most open proceeding in FCC history.”

To the commissioners and industry organizations that have rallied against net neutrality, claiming it would stifle innovation and limit access to information and services, Wheeler directed his strongest words.

“The action we take today is an irrefutable reflection of the principle that no one, whether government or corporate, should control free and open access to the Internet. The Internet is the most powerful and pervasive platform on the planet. It’s simply too important to be left without rules and without a referee on the field…

“This proposal has been described as one opponent as a ‘secret plan to regulate the Internet. Nonsense.  This plan is no more a plan to regulate the Internet than the First Amendment is a plan to regulate free speech,” he said, earning applause and cheers from the audience.”

Ironically, it was Verizon’s response to the FCC’s action that earned almost as much chatter on Twitter as the action itself.

Verizon, whose lawsuit against the FCC forced the commission to take this action, released a statement lamenting the decision written entirely in Morse code. The “translated” version looked as if it were typed on a typewriter, both outdated and outmoded forms of communication, suggesting that Title II is too out-of-step with the current technology to be effective.

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Broadband for America, which has been a vocal opponent to Wheeler’s intended actions, released a scathing statement saying the commission’s decision to “impose obsolete telephone-era regulations on the high-speed Internet is one giant step backwards for America’s broadband networks and everyone who depends on them.” With the vote, “the FCC has abandoned over 15 years of successful bipartisan policy that, by nearly everyone’s acknowledgement, has worked exceedingly well.”

Casey Rae, CEO of the Future of Music Coalition, released a statement saying the FCC’s action is the best possible protection for content creators, and musicians in particular.

“Creators of all political persuasion and backgrounds embody the very spirit of what net neutrality supporters have sought to achieve in this fight: the ability to compete on a level playing field without discrimination from just a few powerful ISP,” she says. “This historic day is a testament to what can be achieved when the creative community comes together with a diverse array of advocates and activists to stand up for free expression and entrepreneurship.”

The group earlier this week published a letter signed by more than 80 artists urging the FCC to move forward with their plan to enact Title II regulation.

In a separate statement, the American Association of Independent Music says the action “means that independents will continue to have fair access to the online marketplace. These safeguards are critical to the independent music industry’s small and medium-sized enterprises that depend on the distribution and monetization of intellectual property.”

 

Our previous coverage can be found here, here, herehereherehere and here.

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