Net Neutrality Passes, Obstacles Remain

Net neutrality has been a major issue of debate over the last few years and today the FCC has passed some unclear rules regulating Internet access. Advocates on both sides are disappointed with the results: some feel that these new regulations will not limit online discrimination and that large loopholes for corporations still exist, while those on the other side believe that the FCC doesn’t even have the power to make these decisions and is too tightly regulating communications.

Here’s an explanation of what was decided yesterday (courtesy of CNet):

The first rule requires both wireless and wireline providers to be transparent in how they manage and operate their networks.

The second Net neutrality rule prohibits the blocking of traffic on the Internet. The rule applies to both fixed wireline broadband network operators, as well as to wireless providers. But the stipulations for each type of network are slightly different.

For fixed broadband networks, operators cannot block any lawful content, services, applications, or devices on their network. Wireless providers area also prohibited from blocking all Websites, but the rule is slightly more lenient when it comes to blocking applications and services. The rule only prohibits these companies from blocking access to applications that specifically compete with a carrier’s telephony voice or video services. In each case, the blocking rule also allows fixed and wireless broadband providers to reasonably manage their networks.

And finally, the last rule applies only to fixed broadband providers. It prohibits fixed wireline broadband providers from unreasonably discriminating against traffic on their network.

What’s problematic here is that wireless users who primarily access the Internet through their mobile phones are subject to different rules than those who are using a computer. Studies show that young people and people of color mainly use their phones to go online. Currently, almost a quarter of the population uses smartphones and it’s been predicted that by 2013, mobile phones will take over PCs as the most common way people access the Internet. So while those who access the Internet from their laptop will have open access to all websites without preferences around pay, there is potential that mobile users will have to pay higher premiums to access certain sites or applications. Wireless providers can also block certain applications which they deem as competitive to their products. It becomes a slippery slope.

While it is a “victory” that online service providers can not block content or promote preferential content based on their corporate relationships, the details of these rules are murky. CNN reports that the official text of these regulations will not be released for another 10-15 days, thus the details of the proposed rules remain a secret. The order was not published before the vote and won’t be for another week at least…therefore the public has a limited view of how these rules will affect daily online use.

What is so powerful about the Internet is that it allows sites like Feministing, who exist out of the mainstream corporate-controlled media spectrum, to provide alternative voices and stories. The Internet has opened up a myriad of opportunities for perspectives that are not mainstream media-friendly and for media outlets to exist without multi-million dollar budgets. With a keyboard and a microphone, you can create your own content and distribute as you like…that’s freedom!

Though I’m slightly relieved that corporations and providers cannot theoretically blocking Internet access, it is said that the devil is in the details. Yet if the public isn’t privy to such details, how do we know the FCC isn’t selling us out? We don’t.

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