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An Internet open to all; The fight for net neutrality

March 5, 2014

Anyone who uses the Internet needs to understand that we are at a crossroads concerning an important matter regarding access to the web called “net neutrality.” At the heart of the issue is (a) whether the Internet will remain “neutral” in the future, i.e. free and open for everyone to use on equal footing, or (b) whether Internet broadband (wide bandwidth, high-speed transmission) service providers—massive telecommunications corporations like Comcast, AT&T and Verizon—will be able to charge higher prices to privileged customers who in turn will receive enhanced access on the Internet’s “information highway” while potentially relegating the rest of us to its slower lanes. Keep in mind that in many localities, these telecoms have a monopoly, with almost 75% of U.S. households having only one choice for Internet service.

The question now before us is: should high-speed Internet be treated more like a common carrier or more like an information service in which paying customers can have superior levels of access?

Under federal telecommunications law, your telephone company is a common carrier that simply transmits data (unchanged); no one user gets priority. Your phone company is regulated as a public utility. On the other hand, your cable TV company provides an information service and can treat you differently depending on how you use your TV, i.e. you pay extra to receive more channels, or premium channels, or to watch a movie on demand. In the realm of the Internet, companies like Amazon, Netflix, Facebook and Google provide information services.

Nearly two decades ago, Congress enacted the Telecommunications Act of 1996 (updating the Communications Act of 1934, which obviously was passed long before there was an Internet). The new law allowed the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to regulate Internet companies as information services, and indeed, the FCC currently classifies broadband providers—those providing DSL, cable and wireless broadband—that way.