Between social media sites, search engines and the ominous “deep web,” the internet is a prime example of free expression. In 2015, with the intent of preserving equal user access to that freedom, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission rolled out a set of “Open Internet” rules.
Just two years later, on May 18, the FCC voted to begin repealing those same rules. On May 23, the FCC released a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) that addressed rolling back the Obama-era Open Internet regulations.
The commission has opened a 90-day period during which it will consider public comments during its rulemaking process. After this process, the FCC will propose rules to replace the Open Internet regulations.
The 2015 adoption of the Open Internet proposal was based on the notion of “net neutrality.” This principle, coined by Columbia professor Tim Wu in 2003, suggests that internet service providers (ISPs), such as Comcast, should grant all users equal access to all publicly available data. Under Open Internet rules, ISPs are not allowed to block websites or grant faster loading speeds to higher-paying customers. The second action is called “paid prioritization.”
Net neutrality is meant to combat commercial interference with the internet. While companies, including ISPs, are free to produce content for the web, they cannot interfere with the web itself. In 2004, for example, the FCC fined the Madison River Communications company $15,000 for restricting consumer access to Vonage.
As for the more technical side: ISPs were classified as “common carriers” under Title II of the Communications Act. The FCC wants to reclassify them as “information services,” meaning they would be less subject to regulation.
The FCC’s May 23 NPRM criticizes net neutrality for siding with users over companies, claiming it weakens potential for investment and economic growth. Businesses like Netflix have long seen the commercial benefits of paid prioritization, especially when there is ever-growing demand for lightning download speeds.
Trump-appointed FCC chairman, Ajit Pai, claimed that the Open Internet rules were too heavy-handed and allowed the government to essentially run the web.
ISPs have cited the FCC’s proposal as a way to make the “free and open internet” even more free and open due to economic opportunity. Verizon released a statement that said it “supports” net neutrality, but it also supports the FCC’s proposal to reclassify (and thus deregulate) ISPs. Comcast has taken a similar approach: The company issued three separate statements claiming its simultaneous support for “a free and open internet” and for the FCC’s proposal regarding Title II.
However, the FCC has been met with public outcry from individual users and some internet-based companies. Political comedian John Oliver addressed the topic on his show, calling for viewers to leave comments on the FCC’s proposal webpage. Tech and science Vox subsidiary The Verge posted a guide on how to comment. In-person protesters demonstrated against the FCC outside the organization’s building, claiming that net neutrality is a pillar of democracy.
At a superficial level, it almost seems that proponents and opponents of the FCC’s proposal are fighting for the same thing: freedom. Yet the true difference lies in whose freedom – whether commercial interests’ or users’ – is being fought for.
By Carina Vo