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Imagine an internet where the biggest companies can pay for high-speed websites, while the rest of the web loads at dial-up speed. You end up using YouTube instead of Vimeo, not because it’s become a better platform, but because Google shells out money for faster upload times.
This morning, the Federal Communications Commission’s rules on net neutrality were struck down in the highly anticipated Verizon v FCC case. The ruling opens the door for private companies to start charging web properties for faster internet speeds: some websites will load fast, others much more slowly. “At stake here is an Internet provider’s ability to charge Web companies such as Netflix for better service, which public interest advocates say may harm consumers,” writes Brian Fung.
Because most consumers only have one or two options in their area when it comes to ISPs, internet companies could potentially discriminate against certain websites. This is especially important because many internet service providers are also content providers. As a result, as William O’Connor notes, Comcast could make NBC, which it owns, stream much faster than any other networks’ video. The greater long-term worry of net neutrality advocates, says Joshua Brustein, is that ISPs will essentially cut out small companies who can’t pay up to get their sites to load quickly.
The ruling strikes down parts of the FCC’s 2010 Open Internet Order, which Sam Gustin summed up nicely when the case was originally argued in the fall. Internet providers like Verizon argue that the FCC doesn’t have the authority to demand net neutrality, thanks to a controversial FCC decision in 2002 to consider internet providers an information service, rather than a telecommunications service. That distinction gives the FCC a lot less regulatory oversight.
Jeff Roberts writes that all is not lost for the FCC. The ruling was decided on technical grounds, meaning the court found that net neutrality is not in itself dead, only the specific way that the FCC went about trying to implement it. In fact, Stuart Benjamin, a former FCC lawyer, thinks this was actually a loss for Verizon, because the court interpreted the FCC’s general regulatory authority over ISPs so broadly: “Insofar as the FCC really wants to promulgate its existing net neutrality rules, it could classify broadband Internet providers as common carriers … and implement the net neutrality regulations that way“.
Geoffrey Manne and Berin Szoka agree that this was a closeted win for the FCC, but they write that net neutrality shouldn’t be in the hands of three unelected commissioners, anyway. “If there’s a silver lining in any of this, it may be that the true implications of today’s decision are so radical that Congress finally writes a new Communications Act”, they say.
Stacey Higginbotham is skeptical that Congress will do anything; nor does she think the FCC is serious about taking a hard line on net neutrality. She thinks it’s more likely that we’ll end up with rules that look similar to the current wireless net neutrality rules, where ISPs can’t block legal sites, but they are “free manage their networks as they see fit”.
If you want to see what that looks like, just look to the new AT&T plan, revealed at CES last week, to have companies sponsor your wireless network usage. We might be, as John Herrman writes, heading toward “an internet that we don’t directly pay for, but that we also don’t control”. — Shane Ferro
On to today’s links: