Internet Heavyweights Lock Arms to Block Fast Lane
Unless Net neutrality is guaranteed, argues the Internet Association, people may get to view whatever content they like on the Internet -- but the broadband providers will control whether they experience quick or plodding page loads, and hiccup-free or herky-jerky streaming. It will all depend on whether content distributors pony up for access to a fast lane. The FCC is playing traffic cop.
A trade association including Amazon, Google and Netflix on Monday called on the U.S. Federal Communications Commission to adopt rules banning deals by broadband providers for faster delivery of some Internet traffic.
The Internet Association, in written testimony submitted to the FCC, called for simple "light touch" rules to ensure an open and neutral Internet.
"Such rules should prohibit broadband Internet access providers from charging a content, application, or service provider for enhanced or prioritized access to the subscribers of the broadband Internet access providers," the association wrote.
Charging for enhanced or prioritized access -- essentially, charging to discriminate against or degrade competing content -- undermines the Internet's level playing field and shifts the balance from the consumers' freedom of choice to the broadband Internet access providers' gatekeeping decisions, it argued.
"Consumers should be able to access whatever websites they want without worrying that things are being degraded by a service provider," Internet Association President and CEO Michael Beckerman told the E-Commerce Times.
Unless the FCC acts to preserve Net neutrality, the association maintained, the broadband providers would turn cyberspace into a "pay-for-priority platform more closely resembling cable television than today's Internet."
The notion that allowing broadband providers to prioritize traffic will result in fast lanes popping up all over the Internet has been exaggerated, according to Doug Brake, a telecom policy analyst with the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation.
"There are no fast lanes or slow lanes -- it's all the same infrastructure," he told the E-Commerce Times. "These fears are overblown."
However, "we're definitely in favor of some rules being put place, because there is the potential for anticompetitive conduct," Brake added.
"Such rules should describe what kinds of Internet access agreements are commercially reasonable," he said, "but the fears out there about fast lanes and slow lanes have been blown out of proportion."
Broadband providers seem to agree with Brake.
"Verizon has long been a strong supporter of an open Internet; our business requires it, and our customers expect it," spokesperson Ed McFadden told the E-Commerce Times. "Our customers can go where they want and do what they want online."
Of all the proposals before the FCC, the call to reclassify broadband under Title II of the federal Communications Act of 1934 strikes a particularly sour note among broadband providers.
Case for Title II
"The commission must reject the calls of extreme voices that wrongly suggest that the only acceptable course for the commission to take is to turn back the clock on progress by reclassifying broadband as a Title II common carrier service," the National Cable and Telecommunications Association said in a statement.
"Contrary to what some alarmists may claim, these are not drastic times, and they certainly do not call for drastic measures like a wholesale change in our approach to broadband regulation," the NCTA added.
There are those who assert, however, that treating broadband service providers as "common carriers" under Title II is necessary to protect Net neutrality.
"Title II has a stronger standard for discrimination that can prevent fast lanes and slow lanes from forming," Christopher Lewis, vice president for government affairs at Public Knowledge, told the E-Commerce Times.
In the past, the FCC has tried to impose Net neutrality rules under Section 706 of the Communications Act. A federal court decision in January struck down those rules.
The FCC could take the 706 route again, which would consumers challenging a fast lane deal at a disadvantage, according to Lewis.
"Section 706 discrimination claims are judged on a case-by-case basis, and the burden is on the consumer to prove they're being discriminated against," he explained.
Title II allows high-level rules of the road to be set up against discrimination that everyone has to follow, Lewis continued.
Then, if an ISP wanted to depart from those rules, it would have to give the FCC a "just and reasonable" cause to do so. "It's a much stronger standard and puts the burden on the big ISPs to make their case," Lewis said.
What's more, it's court-tested.
"When the court struck down the FCC's last Net neutrality rules," Lewis noted, "it was very clear that if the FCC wanted to make strong Net neutrality rules it must do it under Title II authority."