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Net neutrality vote doesn’t end the debate

The Federal Communications Commission has ruled on net neutrality, but the debate lingers on.

My Facebook feed is full of comments from friends with varying opinions about the FCC’s 3-to-2 vote in favor of network neutrality. Some feel that the vote is the beginning of a huge government power grab to control the Internet, while others argue it was a victory for free speech that will keep the Internet free and open. But many remain confused, wondering what the FCC decision will mean for ordinary people.

And, like many things that have been “decided” in Washington, net neutrality is not necessarily a done deal. The FCC’s ruling could be overturned by the courts, by congressional action or by a reconstituted FCC after the 2016 election.

In its simplest terms, the FCC ruling bans wired and wireless Internet service providers from offering preferential treatment to companies willing to pay the extra to make sure their content gets to customers faster or more reliably than companies that don’t pay for such treatment. It also prevents ISPs from blocking or slowing down legal content.

The most extreme example of the need for such a law cited by network neutrality advocates is that it would prevent an ISP from blocking competing services. A phone company like AT&T that offers broadband service, for example, wouldn’t be able to block a company’s voice-over-Internet service that competes with its phone service, and a cable company like Comcast couldn’t block a competing video delivery service like Netflix.

But, as network neutrality opponents correctly point out, this doesn’t happen anyway.

But network neutrality proponents — including the three commissioners who voted for it — worry that it could happen if ISPs are free to do whatever deals they want. They point out that there isn’t a lot of competition in the Internet service business. Depending on where you live, most people only have a choice of two, or in some cases one, wired provider and a very small choice of wireless operators.

Without network neutrality, ISPs would be free to enter into all sorts of business deals and the fear, say the advocates, is that content providers who aren’t willing to or can’t pay the freight, will not be able to offer their customers the same experience as those who do.

Imagine, for example, that you were choosing between two streaming video services. Service A had a deal with your ISP that guaranteed fast and reliable service so that you could start watching their programs immediately and enjoy very high-resolution video. But service B — perhaps a startup — doesn’t have a special deal. You can still watch their video but you might have to wait for it to buffer, it might pause occasionally and the resolution might be a lot lower because they don’t have the same bandwidth as the company that’s paying.

Even though the ISP might say that it’s not discriminating against company B, the mere fact that it has a special deal with company A would create an unlevel playing field.

One of the most controversial aspects of the rule is the FCC’s reclassification of broadband as a Title II telecommunications service under the 1934 Communications Act, which former FCC Chairman Michael Powell — now CEO of a cable industry trade group — called “backward-looking regulatory regime that is unsuited to the dynamic and innovative Internet” in a CNET opinion piece.

The FCC adopted this approach because, as a court ruled, it would otherwise lack the authority to regulate broadband, which was previously classified as an “information service.” Title II gives the FCC broad authority to regulate communications services, but chairman Tom Wheeler has said that the agency will not use this authority to regulate rates or impose other restrictions on ISPs other than to require them to maintain open networks.

Still, critics worry that net neutrality is the start of a slippery slope that could lead to further regulations including rates and — some argue — even content. But Wheeler and others say that won’t happen and that, if anything, the new regulations help protect freedom of speech on the Internet by assuring that you won’t have to pay extra to make your voice heard.

Some argue that the ruling is big government imposing its will on a free market, while others say it’s government protecting consumers against big business. And it’s perhaps no surprise that the FCC vote was along party lines, with the three Democrats voting yes and the Republicans opposed

Politics aside, the big question is how will this rule affect everyday Internet users and, based on what I can gather, the answer is that it will pretty much preserve the status quo because — for whatever reasons — most ISPs are already keeping their networks open. I don’t believe it will lead to government regulation of rates (although there may be a demand for that by some) and I am almost certain it will have no impact on content.