The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) decided February 26 to reclassify the Internet as a telecommunication system, rather than an information system, making Internet Service Providers (ISPs) subject to government oversight and regulation.
The debate over what is called “net neutrality” or “net equality” addresses the ability of ISPs to limit or even block content from providers in order to favor advertisers and increase revenue.
“The question is the extent to which we have different service to encourage innovation or the extent to which we standardize service because it’s something that human beings rely on for very basic aspects of their day-to-day lives,” said Peter Marston, professor of communication studies at CSUN.
Under the Title II law, ISPs would be established as “common carriers” and therefore required to deliver all information at the same speed and not block any legal information, according to Marston.
While many Internet users would prefer this to blocking, which could limit access to certain sites, “throttling,” which would put content from other providers or advertisers in an internet “slow lane,” or paid prioritization, which bumps sites containing revenue-increasing ads and content to the front of the line, it may have economic effects on Internet providers that could limit free market innovation.
“If all Internet service providers have to provide the same content at the same speed, some people argue that that will slow innovation,” Marston says, comparing Internet regulation to previous decades when phone companies were classified as common carriers.
The statements made by the Commission and by Chairman Tom Wheeler both assert that the law itself has been “modernized” to fit advancements in technology.
The sections of the law that are enforceable are also tailored to fit internet use, they say, since they recognize the need to foster technological advancements and provide incentives for companies.
“There’s been so much innovation in cell phones in large part because they’re not common carriers so everyone has a different service plan,” he says. “I would imagine that net neutrality would not necessarily decrease the number of Internet service providers but it would decrease the amount of investment that’s made in Internet service providers.”
Others believe that an open Internet would have beneficial economic effects for its users, supporting small businesses and start-ups who would not have access to paid prioritization. In his statement on an open Internet policy, President Obama supported government regulation of ISPs.
“An open Internet is essential to the American economy, and increasingly to our very way of life. By lowering the cost of launching a new idea, igniting new political movements, and bringing communities closer together, it has been one of the most significant democratizing influences the world has ever known,” President Obama said.
The effects on students would be minimal, whether the Internet is reclassified or not, Marston says. It is hard to predict, in the short term, what kinds of changes ISPs could make.
“The Internet is already unbelievably faster than any other system of communication we’ve had. When I take a look at the list of content that’s been blocked, no one is blocking basic sources of information,” Marston says. “So the ability of students to find what they need to know, I don’t think it’s going to be affected at all.”
The decision will be subject to judicial oversight, as it was last year when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Colombia Circuit ruled that the FCC could not regulate ISPs while they were classified as information systems.
“I think the concrete problem is not especially huge in the day-to-day lives of Americans. It’s certainly not like when we had censorship,” Marston says. “I don’t think by and large, Americans are kept in the dark by their internet service providers. If anything we still have more information than we could possibly handle at any given point in time.”
A hearing March 17 by the House Judiciary Committee will discuss the consequences of the new classification, according to the House of Representatives website.