Net Neutrality is a tricky issue. The fundamental principle behind the concept is that those who control the pipes the Internet flows through have to treat all legal content equally so that users have access to content from small players in the same way they do the big players. We’ve recently seen eyebrows raised about AT&T’s proposed Sponsored Data plans that would enable content providers to pick up the tab for sending content to your mobile device so that your data plan doesn’t take the hit. That sounds good for consumers, but within that plan is the worrisome prospect of carriers being able to pick and choose winners and losers based on who is can afford to pay the cost.
Today a US Appeals court struck down Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Open Internet Order that was an attempt to keep the Internet’s pipes neutral for all players, saying that the FCC does not have the legal authority to regulate and enforce Internet traffic in the same way it does other communication networks that are deemed to be Common Carriers. Legal experts have been anticipating such a challenge to Net Neutrality initiatives for some time now.
What’s at stake here is potentially very simple. If a large entity, such as Netflix, was willing to pay for preferred delivery of its content, Internet carriers could potentially hamper other content carriers, thus slowing or restricting access to that content. The pipes are only so wide they tell us.
The case that allowed this ruling was brought by Verizon Communications who claimed that the Open Internet Order unduly restricted how it controlled its networks and violated its right of free speech.
The U.S. Appeals Court ruling left intact the FCC’s authority to force the carriers to inform the public of how it manages its traffic, and of course the case could be appealed further up the legal chain to the U.S. Supreme Court. New FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler made this comment regarding the ruling:
“I am committed to maintaining our networks as engines for economic growth, test beds for innovative services and products, and channels for all forms of speech protected by the First Amendment. We will consider all available options, including those for appeal, to ensure that these networks on which the Internet depends continue to provide a free and open platform for innovation and expression, and operate in the interest of all Americans.”
We’ll be hearing more about this in the future as the real root of the question will always be who, if anyone, owns access to the Internet.