The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is set to vote on the third set of net neutrality rules proposed by Chairman Tom Wheeler on Thursday, Feb. 26, a vote that could forever change the way we use the Internet.
More than 4 million comments, majority of which came from regular folks like you and me, have been sent to the FCC prior to its drafting of its proposal, indicating that many people care about net neutrality and the future of the Internet.
What exactly is net neutrality and why is it important so as to amass the biggest collection of public comments?
Net neutrality, or as the FCC calls it, an open Internet is the principle that Internet service providers (ISPs) such as Comcast, Time Warner Cable, AT&T, Verizon, and Cox must refrain from discriminating against some forms of content in favor of another. ISPs are generally not in favor of net neutrality, or any rules proposed to regulate their operations. Comcast, for instance, became the center of a net neutrality brouhaha when Netflix revealed it was forced to pay Comcast an undisclosed sum so that Comcast would continue to deliver the streaming service's content to its customers.
Clearly, a lack of net neutrality rules would favor ISPs, which would be under no restrictions to create the dreaded "fast lanes," where deep-pocketed content providers, understood to be big businesses, can pay so that their content is delivered to Internet users faster than other providers who cannot afford to get on those fast lanes. It is the content providers and their consumers who would have to shoulder the cost of the extra fees levied by ISPs.
Along comes the FCC, which offers to regulate the Internet with a set of rules that aim to govern how ISPs go about with their business. The first set of rules, introduced last year, was challenged by Verizon, who said the FCC had no authority to regulate ISPs because they are not classified as public utilities.
The second set of rules suffered a similar fate after the proposal received public backlash for a small provision that allowed the creation of fast lanes under "reasonable" circumstances. The third and final set of rules is currently up in the air until Thursday.
Going by standard FCC procedures, Wheeler has opted not to show to the public the proposed set of rules, despite a request by the two Republican FCC commissioners who asked Wheeler to delay the vote for 30 days in order to reveal the specific rules to the public and let them provide their input.
However, one key component of the new set of rules is the proposal to classify ISPs as public utilities, although without the rate regulations, new tariffs and taxes, and unbundling requirements found in the telephone industry. The rules were announced after President Barack Obama himself made a strong statement in favor of public utility classification of ISPs.
ISPs are, of course, against such a proposal. They argue that placing the Internet under "heavy-handed regulation" will impede innovation and prevent ISPs from investing in network improvements.
On the other hand, content providers assert that equal access to the Internet has paved the way for the rise of innovative services that are beneficial to the public. We will know who wins the first round in the war for the Internet on Thursday, when the FCC makes its crucial net neutrality vote.
However, not all is expected to be smooth-sailing for Wheeler, who was initially expected to have the backing of the two other Democrat commissioners, Mignon Clyburn and Jessica Rosenworcel.
The latest report from The Hill says Clyburn is reportedly asking Wheeler to roll back some of the restrictions, particularly the ones governing the relationship between "edge providers," such as Google and Netflix, and ISPs. It is unclear what Clyburn intended with her request, but some net neutrality experts, such as Stanford University law professor Barbara van Schewick, say that Clyburn's request will actually strengthen the rules instead of watering them down.
"This is good to remove questionable legal theories from the order that might ultimately bring down the order," van Schewick said.
Clyburn's intention, according to some experts, is to remove any legal loopholes that ISPs could take advantage of to charge edge providers for the "service" of delivering their content to their consumers. Advocacy groups such as Free Press and Open Institute Technology, as well as Google and even AT&T, say ISPs do not offer any service to providers, and thus have no reason to charge them. The only customers ISPs have are consumers.
It appears that the future of the Internet rests in the hands of one woman alone. When the vote comes in on Thursday, we will know which side Clyburn is on. Of course, the vote is not the end of the net neutrality war. On the contrary, Thursday will only mark the beginning of a longer, more drawn-out legal battle which the ISPs have vowed to wage should the proposal to turn them into public utilities be approved.