The Fight for the Internet
11 May 2017
In 2002, the FCC classified Internet providers under Title I, an “Information Service” classification. This is generally regarded as a win for net neutrality advocates but didn’t go as far as many wanted. Title I classification has been referred to as a “hands off” or “lite” classification in that it recognized that the Internet was an important means of communication but provided minimal regulations around that status. Specifically, Title I allowed the FCC some indirect authority to regulate interstate and international communications, but did not allow regulation of services themselves. Net neutrality advocates considered this to be too little. While the FCC promised that Title I would allow them to enforce net neutrality as needed, Title I by its definition did not allow them to follow up on those promises.
ISPs (in particular, Verizon) fought Title I classification and rightly won against the FCC in court in late 2013. They argued that by the FCC’s own definition of the classification, the FCC was not permitted to regulate them. Verizon and others could not be fined for Title I violations that did not happen on an interstate or international level. The long-term outcome of the Verizon win was a formal declaration that ISPs would need to be classified under Title II if the FCC wanted to impose the regulations they promised. In 2015, they did just that.
Title II gives the FCC authority to protect ISP customers from “unjust” practices such as discrimination against certain content types, among other things. It also gives the FCC the ability to enact policies that would encourage and expand competition in the Internet provider industry. Both of these are key for protecting net neutrality.
While many articles surfaced claiming Title II was the nightmare of ISPs and ISPs themselves fought against it, there was minimal business impact. Verizon executives are on record saying that Title II would have no impact on their infrastructure investments or larger business. Sprint even came out in favor of net neutrality regulations, making a departure from other ISPs. To put it loosely, life went on but with a safer Internet. For service providers, it was business as usual - just with a few extra requirements for transparency and regulations around what they could and could not do to traffic on their networks. That’s not to say that telecoms are not continuing to fight against net neutrality.
Due to the ongoing fight, net neutrality has never been fully secure. Despite advocates’ best efforts to be heard which in both 2016 and this year have crashed the FCC website, Congress and some members of the FCC remain opposed to net neutrality. While disagreement is a healthy part of a democracy, the public opinion is that the Internet should have neutrality protections. In 2016, millions of comments were submitted to the FCC in support of Title II classification. Just this month, the FCC website experienced problems yet again for more than a day due to the volume of comments (the filing period is still open, and you can submit your own comments). Despite that, Congress has in the past voted to strip some of the FCC’s regulatory powers and the current FCC itself has laid out a plan to tear apart net neutrality.
From a non-legislative side the fight against net neutrality continues also. An ISP group is currently running a misleading ad campaign claiming their support of net neutrality but without Title II classification, suggesting that the two could not be equated. Verizon published a video interview with their legal counsel explaining that net neutrality was at the forefront of their priorities but that the legislation for it is a mistake. There are cable-industry run websites that attempt to make a case for why net neutrality is a problem. Claims were made that ISPs would remain committed to their customer privacy and to competition. However, telecoms are the ones fighting privacy and neutrality regulations that they claim to be in favor of. That’s not to mention that Title II is net neutrality, according to the court ruling in FCC and Verizon over Title I. Worse is the fact that telecoms have already blatantly violated net neutrality principles in the past and now have the technology to do far worse in less obvious ways.
If you care about a neutral and open Internet, you can join the net neutrality fight too. Get started here.