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FCC guts net neutrality to pave way to tiered internet

Leaves Brazil to show how its done
Thu Apr 24 2014, 13:23

Federal Communications Commission emblemIN A MOVE designed to serve corporate America and raise the hackles of almost everyone else, the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has proposed to redefine net neutrality.

In a document to be released later today, the FCC will announce that it will allow media firms to buy access to internet "fast lanes", thus ending its commitment to neutral internet service in the US. The proposed rules will be permitted for "commercial reasons", the FCC said, essentially offering faster internet content delivery to the highest bidders.

The proposed rules see the FCC formalising internet rules to please large corporations at the expense of the public and pandering to cable companies that have been lobbying for the right to charge for expedited 'pay to play' service to big media companies, with preferential service disguised as 'traffic management'.

The FCC has been floundering on the issue of net neutrality since Verizon won an appeal last year by arguing that the commission had no right to impose net neutrality on internet service providers (ISPs), because the FCC had defined the internet as "information services". Verizon's lawyers successfully argued that the FCC had no right to impose net neutrality restrictions on providers of "information services", as opposed to "telecommunications services".

Since that US Court of Appeals ruling, the FCC has declined to appeal the decision, nor use its powers to redefine the internet as "telecommunications services" or "public services" - both of which would bring net neutrality back under its remit, instead proposing to rule on issues on a case by case basis and paving the way for today's announcement.

Perhaps most disturbing of all is that permitting sales of "fast lane" access likely will have two consequences, meaning not only that streaming video services will be able to pay ISPs for fast access, while customers will have to pay to view the content via those fast lanes, but also that individual internet users, startup companies and smaller competitors will be shut out of the resulting content market.

Arguably, this inevitably will lead to media concentration with larger corporations dominating aspects of the internet, smothering minority and alternative points of view as well as innovation, leaving US internet content to be dictated by the interests of its new 'owners'.

The result could become a truly dystopian nightmare - a US internet that's much like US cable television.

Continuing pressure from Comcast, whose size and leverage is set to increase still further following its proposed merger with Time Warner Cable, appears to have had the desired effect.

A million strong petition had already been submitted urging the FCC to preserve net neutrality. On receiving the petition, FCC chairman Tom Wheeler said, "One of the great things about what the Internet does and why it needs to stay open, it enables people to organise and express themselves. A million people? That's boffo." Now, even before the announcement has been made, a new petition has been organised to oppose the FCC's proposed abandonment of net neutrality.

Although Netflix, which is said to account for 33 percent of America's internet traffic, already has a private arrangement with Comcast that gives it a bypassed shortcut to Comcast servers, it has always supported net neutrality.

In a blog post, CEO Reed Hasting wrote, "Some big IPSs are extracting a toll because they can - they effectively control access to millions of consumers and are willing to sacrifice the interest of their own customers to press Netflix and others to pay."

He went on to say that Netflix would pay the fees "in the short term", but argued, "When an ISP sells a consumer a 10 or 50Mbps internet package, the consumer should get that rate, no matter where the data is coming from." This proposal would effectively put paid to that idea.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has already issued a statement opposing the news. ACLU legislative counsel and policy advisor Gabe Rottman said, "If the FCC embraces this reported reversal in its stance toward net neutrality, barriers to innovation will rise, the marketplace of ideas on the internet will be constrained, and consumers will ultimately pay the price."

He added, "Until consumers have a meaningful choice when connecting to the internet, monopolistic high-speed broadband providers will have an incentive to charge content providers more to connect to their customers."

In a bitter twist of irony, as the eyes of the world apart from the US turn to Brazil for the upcoming World Cup, the country has joined the EU with a bill to ensure net neutrality for its citizens, just one day before the US announcement abandoning it.

Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff said, "The internet you want is only possible in an environment of respect for human rights, especially privacy and freedom of expression."

The FCC announcement is expected this afternoon. µ


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