The hot topic in telecommunications for consumers this year has been net neutrality, and it has garnered plenty of debate. Millions of consumers have submitted comments about this issue to the Federal Communications Commission, more than for any other issue. It’s clear that people feel protective of an open Internet and want to preserve its great benefits. We’ve had months of discussion, forums, and roundtables — and yet some confusion still remains — sometimes even among tech-savvy consumers. How did we get to this point – and what’s really at stake for consumers?
Let’s recap: Early this year, the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia threw out many of the open Internet rules that had been set by the FCC in 2010. Those rules were sound; they mandated basic net neutrality principles, such as the prohibition against blocking legal online content, but the legal basis of the rules was not. Currently, the FCC is in the process of forming a stronger basis for principles to preserve the open Internet.
Now, the FCC must charter a course between two main paths. The commission could choose to reclassify broadband services and adopt Title II “common carrier” utility regulations. These regulations currently apply to some landline telephone providers. With this proposed option, broadband services would be subject to the same rules as monopoly telephone service providers were from the 1930s. Taking the other path, the FCC could use its existing authority under Section 706 of the Communications Act to enforce open Internet principles, including bans on blocking and “fast lanes,” on a case-by-case basis.
There is no question that the Internet is critical to consumers. It has brought many important and life-enhancing benefits. Consumers use the Internet for education, news, banking, entertainment, and social and professional networking. Widespread access to advanced broadband connectivity makes it possible for us to find telecommuting opportunities, to take educational courses from our kitchen table, to age in place, and to stay connected with family members and friends from across the country and around the world. We all want to continue to receive the benefits from these online innovations. We also need to have the ability to access the information and services we want, and to access them easily, quickly, and from any location.
During the many months of debate on this issue, some have warned consumers that the great benefits the Internet delivers are now at risk. No on wants to risk the loss of these benefits — and no one wants their online traffic blocked. These warnings have caused great concern for consumers.
There is a way to address these concerns and get to a clearer path. The regulatory approach the government has previously maintained toward the Internet has basically worked. Historically, the government has imposed rules that have encouraged investment and innovation, while leading to more benefits and choices for consumers. The success of this style of regulation — a relatively lighter touch of regulation — has enabled the widespread availability of broadband services and applications. It’s brought us the Internet consumers know and use today. Selecting to enforce the open Internet principles under Section 706 of the Communications Act would continue a regulatory approach that has had positive results — a proven track record of success.
Alternatively, the other path before the FCC of reclassifying under Title II raises greater uncertainty and consequences. There would be new rules, requirements, and costs for broadband service providers (large and small), and also on startups that make software, apps, operating systems, and devices that could negatively impact innovation, investment, and consumers.
When we examine how we got to where we are today in our Internet world, it’s clear to see where we should be going. The FCC most certainly should preserve the open Internet principles under their more progressive Section 706 authority. This approach is best to encourage investment and innovation, but most importantly for the consumers who benefit every day from their online experience.
Debra Berlyn is president of Consumer Policy Solutions and director of the Consumer Awareness Project.