Q: What’s this court decision all about?
A: In a 2-1 decision, the Federal Communications Commission won a sweeping victory against a number of suing internet providers. The FCC was accused of writing a set of strict rules for Internet providers that went far beyond what it was allowed to do under its mandate. And by filing a lawsuit, telecom companies hoped to get those rules thrown out.
Q: But instead the companies lost?
A: Yes, pretty much across the board, surprising almost everyone on both sides of the issue.
The conventional wisdom in Washington was that the court would agree to let some of the rules slide, but not all. Analysts predicted that the three judges in the case would throw out an attempt by the FCC to apply its rules to cellphone data as well as regular, fixed home broadband. But in the end, the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit granted even those provisions.
Q: Remind me again what these rules are for and what they look like?
A: In a nutshell, they’re aimed at making sure the internet stays an open platform and that cable and telecom companies can’t use their position in the marketplace to unfairly benefit themselves and shut down competition.
More specifically, the rules come in several parts. The first part contains a series of total bans on certain kinds of tactics – things like blocking or slowing down the websites you’re trying to reach while favouring the sites that a cable or telco may own or have a commercial relationship with. These flatly aren’t allowed under what the FCC calls its “bright-line rules”.
This is a good thing. You don’t want your ISP deciding for you how fast or slow your connection to websites are, based on their commercial relationships. You want your ISP to treat all sites you want to access, the same.
Basically this is about stopping vertical integration where a dominant player can use their position unfairly. A comparison would be with airports. You would not want (for example) Auckland Airport to be owned by Qantas, and then make all non-Qantas flights wait twice as long to depart.
Net neutrality is unlikely to be an issue in NZ, because we have good competition among ISPs. But in the US, it is a more valid concern – so the ruling is welcome.