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FCC’s New Net Neutrality Rules: Bad for Media That Matters

InternetThe FCC’s proposed “net neutrality” rules, scheduled for public input on May 15, could make it harder for people who make media that matters to reach people who can use their work. 

Public-interest nonprofits including Free Press, Public Knowledge, Demand Progress, and Common Cause are calling foul play on the FCC’s decision to allow big content companies like Netflix to buy preferential treatment from Internet service providers. Specifically, the new policy would allow ISPs to charge for faster content delivery, as long as it’s “commercially reasonable.”

This is bad news for independent media makers because it privileges media services with more money to buy faster access (= better viewer experience) to users. Services that showcase independent media projects that rely on fast delivery, such as video and interactive web content, could get shut out of the market if they can’t pay up. Under the new rules, we may end up with what many are calling the “pay-to-play” version of the Internet.

The new proposed rules do prevent outright blocking of or discrimination against certain types of content. However, the “commercially reasonable” clause amounts to economic discrimination. FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler claims that the rules support net neutrality because “the same rules will apply to all Internet content,” but rules that give one company an advantage over the other are inherently not neutral.

You can’t ignore the fact that, as Stacey Higginbotham at GigaOm notes, “not all web content is created equal.” ISPs do need to set priorities, given that some material (streamed video for instance) needs quicker delivery than others (say, a large file being uploaded to a storage site). But we agree with Higginbotham in saying that the FCC’s rule doesn’t actually address this real problem of Internet governance. Instead, the FCC is letting deep pockets set priorities. And that will stifle innovation, by favoring incumbents. Diversity will decline and with it the options of the non-mainstream voices—like those showcased in media that matters.

In response to the new rules, Public Knowledge and Free Press are stepping up efforts to get the FCC to reclassify the Internet as a Title II "telecommunications service," subject to regulation, rather than an “information service” run according to business practices. A Title II classification would allow the FCC to treat ISPs as “common carriers” required to connect people to information regardless of content, in the same way that phone companies connect calls regardless of the conversation. 

This is a much tougher road politically, for the FCC, than the one it chose, but it’s one that would allow it to make the appropriate policy decision, instead of allowing the 1% of the Internet to decide its fate. “The FCC is inviting ISPs to pick winners and losers online,” said Vice President Michael Weinberg. “This is not Net neutrality. This standard allows ISPs to impose a new price of entry for innovation on the Internet.”

Free Press has launched a petition calling for Chairman Wheeler to reclassify broadband as a telecommunications service. A whitehouse.gov petition, which got over 10,000 signatures in a single day, calls for “no bandwidth modifications of information based on content or its source.”

Free Press’s Save the Internet campaign provides a list of other actions people can take, such as calling the FCC and participating in a Day of Action on May 15. For more on the debate around net neutrality, check out this great article on the arguments for and against the FCC's new rules.