The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia has handed down their ruling in a case where Verizon challenged the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) jurisdiction to enforcing an open and throttle-free Internet. Verizon won. Here’s an excerpt from the ruling:
“Even though the Commission has general authority to regulate in this arena, it may not impose requirements that contravene express statutory mandates. Given that the Commission has chosen to classify broadband providers in a manner that exempts them from treatment as common carriers, the Communications Act expressly prohibits the Commission from nonetheless regulating them as such. Because the Commission has failed to establish that the anti-discrimination and anti-blocking rules do not impose per se common carrier obligations, we vacate those portions of the Open Internet Order.”
According to Verizon’s defense, the FCC’s Open Internet order violates their First Amendment rights “by stripping them of control over the transmission of speech on their networks. And it takes network owners’ property without compensation.” Because, ya know, Verizon owns the Internet and we’re all stealing it.
So, what happened? Basically, when the FCC categorized ISPs as “Information Services” rather than “Common Carriers” back in 1996 they placed Internet Service Providers outside of their rights to regulate them.
So what does this mean? As of right now, ISPs answer to no one. They can allow access to whatever they want at any speed they want for any additional charges they see fit. Let’s just make up some extreme nightmare scenarios to illustrate why Net Neutrality is so important though.
As of Tuesday’s ruling, Verizon is now free to strike a deal with, say, Amazon. In this deal Amazon will pay Verizon to degrade users’ connection to Netflix and prioritize connections Amazon Instant Video. Verizon could then offer a “service” to their customers providing them with priority access to Netflix for an additional monthly fee.
In another scenario, Verizon may simply see Google as too much of a bandwidth hog to bother with and just cut all their customers off from the video hub unless Google coughs up some dough. Similarly, Verizon may simply decide that it is not in the ISPs best interests for it’s customers to have access to the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a popular and powerful group crusading for consumer’s digital rights. Or they could just turn their Internet service into something resembling cable television where only large sites are offered and users pay for access to each one separately.
None of this has happened yet. But, as of Tuesday, it is all possible and no one can prevent it. We’re also not just talking about Verizon, mind you, but any ISP. This is especially worrying with a company like Time Warner who controls not just the connection, but the media as well.
Is it all over for Net Neutrality? Hardly. It is highly unlikely that the US Government will allow ISPs free reign over the telephone of the 21st century. ISPs could be reclassified as Common Carriers, the FCC could be granted jurisdiction over Information Services, or a new government agency could be created to specifically handle service providers. Still, governments move slowly and there is a ton of lobbyist money from the likes of Verizon, Time Warner, Comcast, and AT&T in Washington.