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Net neutrality: FCC votes in favour of Title II reclassification

Posted by malcolm on Friday, February 27th, 2015 at 11:37

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has approved new rules aimed at protecting the principle of network neutrality.

The FCC voted 3-2 to reclassify Internet access as a “telecommunications service” under Title II of the Communications Act – the statute previously used to regulate phone providers. Broadband providers will now be classified as “common carriers” in relation to their domestic and mobile Internet customers, giving the FCC a greater mandate to regulate in favour of network neutrality.

The 300-page order containing the new rules has not yet been published. However, judging from a summary (pdf) published earlier this month, we can expect the order to ban the blocking or throttling of “legal content, applications, services, or non-harmful devices”. “Paid prioritisation” - the practice of favouring traffic from certain sources over others in return for payment – is also likely to be prohibited. However, the summary also refers to provisions to allow for “reasonable network management”.

The FCC is expected to forbear from using parts of the Communications Act which aren’t relevant to network neutrality. For example, the order will not put in place any new taxes or fees, and will not require broadband providers to contribute to the Universal Service Fund – a fund to which telecommunications providers such as phone companies have to contribute in order to promote universal access. Broadband providers “shall not be subject to tariffs or other form of rate approval, unbundling, or other forms of utility regulation”.

However, the FCC will have the power to investigate complaints about “interconnection activity”, which is likely to include some peering agreements.

For the first time the Commission would have authority to hear complaints and take appropriate enforcement action if necessary, if it determines the interconnection activities of ISPs are not just and reasonable, thus allowing it to address issues that may arise in the exchange of traffic between mass market broadband providers and edge providers.
— Fact Sheet: Chairman Wheeler Proposes New Rules for Protecting the Open Internet (pdf)

The Electronic Frontiers Foundation welcomed the new rules, but also sounded a note of caution.

Reclassification under Title II was a necessary step in order to give the FCC the authority it needed to enact net neutrality rules. But now we face the really hard part: making sure the FCC doesn’t abuse its authority. ...For example, the new rules include a “general conduct rule” that will let the FCC take action against ISP practices that don’t count as blocking, throttling, or paid prioritization.

However, the CTIA, which represents wireless Internet providers, said:

The FCC’s Net Neutrality decision was disappointing and unnecessary: consumers across the U.S. have – and will always have – access to an open mobile Internet. By ignoring the fundamental differences in wireless networks and disregarding the intense competition throughout the mobile ecosystem.

Meanwhile, Verizon issued a statement in morse code claiming that the FCC had imposed “1930s Rules on the Internet”.

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(translation here)

Netflix, which has long campaigned for the new network neutrality rules, heralded the decision as a win for consumers.

The net neutrality debate is about who picks winners and losers online: Internet service providers or consumers. Today, the FCC settled it: Consumers win.

Today’s order is a meaningful step towards ensuring ISPs cannot shift bad conduct upstream to where they interconnect with content providers like Netflix. Net neutrality rules are only as strong as their weakest link, and it’s incumbent on the FCC to ensure these interconnection points aren’t used to end-run the principles of an open Internet.

Outside of the United States, the FCC’s decision is likely to bolster campaigns to promote network neutrality regulation around the world.

With over 770 members connecting from over 76 different countries worldwide, LINX members have access to direct routes from a large number of diverse international peering partners.

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