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The FCC's new net neutrality rules, explained

The FCC's new net neutrality rules, explained

Posting in Government

The FCC approved new rules on Tuesday, which gave the government new authority to regulate Internet traffic. But what does this mean for net neutrality? And for you?

The battle of net neutrality has been, and will continue to be, extremely intense. The FCC's approval of its chairman's proposal to commit net neutrality to law, then, was bound to inspire--to put it euphemistically--mixed feelings. Opinions on the rules, which will soon undergo congressional and legal scrutiny, are easy to find. In fact, they're hard to avoid.

What's less easy to find is a simple primer: What do these rules mean? Hell, what is net neutrality? Here's what you need to know.

The rules are intended to give the federal government the ability to "regulate internet traffic." Contrary to public mischaracterizations by net neutrality opponents, this regulation isn't about censorship of content by the government; it's about making sure that the networks themselves are "neutral." Here's a dictionary definition:

the principle that basic Internet protocols should be non-discriminatory, esp. that content providers should get equal treatment from internet operators.

The arguments that follow from this proposition are fairly straightforward. Proponents of net neutrality say that our network providers shouldn't be allowed to distinguish between different types of data sent to us over the web. Whether a megabyte is video content, audio content, VoIP traffic, a news website or a multiplayer game, it should be routed to users at the same speed, for the same price, as any other megabyte.

Opponents say that telling Internet providers what they can and can't charge for would be an overstep for the government.

So, what do these new rules mean? By and large, they're a triumph for net neutrality. Here's what they say:

  • Wired Internet providers--the people who provide the connection in your home--can't discriminate against certain types of content.
  • Users will be provided with more information from these companies regarding their service plans, speeds, and costs.
  • ISPs can manage traffic in reasonable ways, including by throttling certain types of content, but only if they are open about how they do it, and it's executed as a mitigating tool--not a policy

HOWEVER: Wireless network providers are subject to looser rules. They can't limit access to websites, but can throttle network access from certain types of apps. The argument for implementing these looser rules for wireless networks, as I understand it, is that new wireless infrastructure will require a large outlay from carriers in the near term, so these companies are entitled to charge more for particularly stressful services.

What this bill is not, generally speaking, is a disaster for net neutrality advocates. Writing for InfoWorld, Paul Venezia worries, citing the "vague" definition of net neutrality used in the language of the regulations:

By watering down what should be hard and fast rules governing how carriers can interfere with data sent to and from their own customers, this order may actually be worse than nothing at all.

It's true that the rules about traffic management in the regulations could be a bit more clear, but the spirit of the regulations leans heavily in the direction of net neutrality. Add to that the extended legislative process that will soon envelop these regulations, as well as the inevitable secondary and tertiary regulations that will be required to flesh out the policy in full, and the picture that emerges is a profoundly moderate move by the FCC.

In other words, nobody will be fully satisfied with it. But advocates of net neutrality have much more to be happy about than their opponents, and Internet users in general can rest easy.

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John Herrman

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor John Herrman is a freelance writer based in New York City. He is also contributing editor at Gizmodo. He holds a degree from the University of Edinburgh. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure