The Federal Commerce Commission’s goal of net neutrality moved a little farther out of reach this month, after US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled the FCC lacks the authority to regulate major broadband Internet providers.
The high court’s decision means the FCC has no legal grounds to step in, should Big Cable decide to slow their customers’ connection speeds, increase Internet costs, or filter certain pages from search results.
A customer could, of course switch her broadband Internet provider if she found her service too slow or too costly. The problem is that very little competition exists between major telecommunications companies in many regions of the country. As Timothy Karr points out, the FCC's National Broadband Plan reveals only four percent of Americans have more than two choices for wireless Internet providers.
And the FCC can’t prevent these Internet providers, companies like Comcast, Verizon Communications Inc., AT&T Inc, and Time Warner, from making some Internet content easier to get to than other Website.
As things stands now, Internet users can connect to any page—whether it be a state-of-the-art Website run by a multi-million dollar corporation, or a teenager’s personal blog— at the same speed.
But court ruling underscored the illegality of government stopping cable companies from giving priority to selected web content. Put simply, a business can pay cable providers to ensure its company’s site shows up more frequently in a search, or its page downloads the fastest. Big companies can plaster their Website and litter advertisements all over a network, so long as they’re willing to pony up the cash.
As the Economist notes, this poses a serious threat to independent-run Websites lacking deep corporate pockets.
“As for you folks out there who might like to start your own political blogs, or online businesses, or whatever: good luck. The FCC tried to help you out by writing rules that would ensure the established players couldn't set up barriers to entry in the digital realm. But the courts just said no dice.”
The case, Comcast v. Federal Communications Commission, marks a setback for the FCC’s project of maintaining a fast, extensive and accessible Internet for all Americans, all objectives they outlined in the National Broadband Plan presented to congress in March.
And the ruling seems to fly in the face of President Obama’s pledge to foster Internet freedom:
"Indeed I remain firmly committed to net neutrality so we can keep the Internet as it should be – open and free,” he said in a May 2009 address.
But a free Internet has not vanished yet.
Rather than indicating net neutrality is on its deathbed, some said the ruling may mean the FCC has their work cut out for them.
As Zach Pentel wrote for Campus Progress, the FCC had a relatively weak case against Comcast–given current laws in place the company did nothing to break the rules. Now, he says, is a time riper than ever to before to establish lasting federal jurisdiction laws over Internet providers.
“Rather than close doors the [court] decision just solidified the necessary course of action for the FCC to ensure net neutrality,” Pentel said.
So what can citizens do to help the FCC ensure net neutrality?
Next Tuesday and Wednesday FCC representatives come to Seattle to stoke discussion and spread education about the Internet’s future. Reclaim the Media, a non-profit organization devoted to digital justice, provides the following event information:
The FCC is Coming to Seattle
Next week, Seattle will get our chance to weigh in on the future of the Internet, as the FCC returns to Seattle with a pair of events focused on preserving an open Internet.
On Tuesday evening, Apr 27, FCC Commissioner Meredith Baker and staff will be featured guests at a community conversation on open Internet and net neutrality, organized by Reclaim the Media. The event begins at 6:30 p.m. at Asian Counseling and Referral Service, 3639 Martin Luther King Way in Seattle. Details here.
Then, at 9:30 a.m. on Weds. Apr. 28, the FCC will hold an official workshop on Preserving the Open Internet, downtown at the Federal Building. Both events are free and open to the public.
The Tues. evening event will offer a better opportunity to speak and interact with FCC staff. The Weds. morning workshop will be more formal, with questions accepted in written form. The Weds. morning event will also be streamed live online.