Students on university campuses everywhere or learning online in massive open online courses (MOOCs) will be sad to hear that a federal appeals court has rejected key parts of the FCC’s Open Internet rules. If they aren’t, they should be, as access to online education and information for all is potentially disappearing behind a toll booth.
So, what are the FCC Open Rules? Here is the CliffsNotes version (I am a student, after all):
Essentially, FCC Open Rules ensure that data on the internet should flow equally from publisher to user without publishers or users being additionally charged by the internet service providers (ISPs) to deliver content in a reliable way. ISPs would not be allowed to discriminate in delivery of their competitors’ information or to only return results of a business partner of the ISP.
In their decision yesterday, the judges did not rule against the open internet rules themselves; they ruled against the FCC being able to enforce them. Currently, ISPs are not classified as entities the FCC can regulate. The FCC is empowered to regulate “common carriers” like phone companies and right now the internet infrastructure is not classified in the same way as public broadcast, radio, or phone lines, which are identified as common carriers.
Bottom line: as things stand today, ISPs can throttle speeds of certain sites, allowing them to push their own services or seek payments for preferential treatment. Cable TV, anybody?
Verizon’s response to the decision is worrisome:
“One thing is for sure: today’s decision will not change consumers’ ability to access and use the internet as they do now. The court’s decision will allow more room for innovation, and consumers will have more choices to determine for themselves how they access and experience the internet. Verizon has been and remains committed to the open internet that provides consumers with competitive choices and unblocked access to lawful websites and content when, where, and how they want. This will not change in light of the court’s decision.”
Verizon’s position on net neutrality is clear: they say innovation will be stifled. An unregulated internet, the argument goes, results in competition, which in turn ensures an open internet because that’s what consumers want. Just like the competition between Facebook and Google pushes social media sites to improve their privacy policies so users feel safe sharing their information. Oh wait, Google wants to be Facebook and compete not by protecting its users but by trying to sell them out faster to the highest bidder. Which is exactly what will happen to the web without any regulation.
As a student, I am worried that the new unregulated internet sheriffs, Verizon, Comcast-NBC, and others, will not hold the interests of education and democracy above profits. Will students in rural areas still be able to access reasonable speed internet for an affordable price when, where, and how they want or will it become a privilege of wealth? Will a book’s website be blocked if the book is banned in the country they are servicing? Will the filter bubble become more and more intense, leaving people less informed about the world – will it reinforce a small word view with stories as told by NBC via Comcast?
As a citizens we should also be worried–will delivery of content be skewed even more in election years? Will the competitors of these ISP sheriffs be made to pay even more as has already happened to other providers like Earthlink.
Here is what should happen now: Instead of appealing the decision, the FCC and Congress should reclassify ISPs as common carriers so that the FCC can legally regulate them. Then, like the FCC already does with television, it can license ISPs, giving them the right to create channels as contract carriers similar to Cable TV. As a contract carrier, they would be able to charge a premium. Users who want a certain level of content and service are charged a subscription. Meanwhile, the rest of the internet is regulated as a common carrier which does not discriminate on content, publisher, application, equipment, site or platform.
This way the public and students can decide which highways to take on the internet–the ones with the tolls or the public roadways where people can travel relatively freely (as you still have to be able to pay for the car and gas or computer and connection as it were). Entertainment and some other high-level bandwidth services might decide to go behind the toll booth for a premium or cable-like customer experience. But educational content would still be accessible to all.