WASHINGTON — Netflix, Twitter and Internet activists have won. Big cable has lost. At least until the federal courts get involved, when everything could change. Five things you need to know about the Federal Communications Commission's vote Thursday to enforce "net neutrality" rules for the broadband industry:
1. NET NEUTRALITY IS WHAT YOU ALREADY HAVE. With few exceptions, the cable and wireless companies that provide much of the nation's broadband already operate under the idea of net neutrality. This means they don't discriminate among similar types of web traffic, and don't intentionally slow or block data.
The FCC decision was intended to make sure that the Internet as we know it doesn't change. Regulators say this was important because some providers had signaled an interest in manipulating their network traffic, potentially entering into paid deals with sites like Netflix to move their content faster. But these efforts never got very far, and many providers say they don't want to upset consumers by violating basic net neutrality principles.
2. THIS WILL AFFECT YOU. JUST NOT ANYTIME SOON. The FCC put the Internet in the same regulatory camp as the telephone, regulating it like a public utility. That means whatever company provides your Internet connection, even if it's to your phone, will now have to act in the public interest and not do anything that might be considered "unjust or unreasonable." If they don't, you can complain and the FCC can step in to investigate.
But broadband providers are expected to sue. It's likely they will ask the courts to delay implementation of the rules pending judicial review. And if a judge agrees, the legal wrangling could slip well into the next president's first term.
Even if a judge grants a stay on the rules, it's unlikely that Internet service providers would start throttling web traffic or creating paid fast lanes. Most consumers don't like the idea, and companies would face a fierce public backlash.
3. THE CABLE COMPANIES LOST. The cable and wireless companies that offer broadband say the worst part about the new rules is that they aren't predictable. Republican FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai compared it to playing a game in which white flags would arbitrarily be thrown on the field. Pai and industry officials say this kind of uncertainty will affect how Internet providers operate. Providers will be much less willing to offer new services to consumers if they think the FCC might get involved, they say.
4. INTERNET ACTIVISTS ARE HAVING A MOMENT. Small Internet-based companies won a fight in Washington without deep pockets and lots of lobbyists. They did it by drumming up support among average Americans, who flooded the FCC with a record-breaking number of public comments. As an executive at Mozilla put it, "millions of people stood together as citizens of the Web to demand those strong protections." President Barack Obama gushed that the FCC decision "wouldn't have happened without Americans like you."
5. NEXT STOP IS CONGRESS. While broadband providers turn to their lawyers to mount a legal protest to the FCC rules, Republican lawmakers say they will push for a legislative fix. Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, is expected to lead this fight, starting with March 18 hearings. However, the FCC regulations give most Democrats exactly what they wanted in the first place. And Obama likely would veto anything else. So it's unclear whether Thune or others might be able to find any momentum before the next presidential election.
— The Associated Press
WASHINGTON — Internet activists declared victory over the nation's big cable companies Thursday, after the Federal Communications Commission voted to impose the toughest rules yet on broadband providers like Comcast, Verizon and AT&T to prevent them from creating paid fast lanes and slowing or blocking Web traffic.
The 3-2 vote ushered in a new era of government oversight for an industry that has seen relatively little. It represents the biggest regulatory shake-up to telecommunications providers in almost two decades.
The new rules require that any company providing a broadband connection to your home or phone must act in the "public interest" and refrain from using "unjust or unreasonable" business practices. The goal is to prevent providers from striking deals with content providers like Google, Netflix or Twitter to move their data faster.
"Today is a red-letter day for Internet freedom," said FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, whose remarks at Thursday's meeting frequently prompted applause by Internet activists in the audience.
President Barack Obama, who had come out in favor of net neutrality in the fall, portrayed the decision as a victory for democracy in the digital age. In an online letter, he thanked the millions who wrote to the FCC and spoke out on social media in support of the change.
"Today's FCC decision will protect innovation and create a level playing field for the next generation of entrepreneurs — and it wouldn't have happened without Americans like you," he wrote.
Verizon saw it differently, using the Twitter hashtag #ThrowbackThursday to draw attention to the FCC's reliance on 1934 legislation to regulate the Internet.
Net neutrality is the idea that websites or videos load at about the same speed. That means you won't be more inclined to watch a particular show on Amazon Prime instead of on Netflix because Amazon has struck a deal with your service provider to load its data faster.
For years, providers mostly agreed not to pick winners and losers among Web traffic because they didn't want to encourage regulators to step in and because they said consumers demanded it. But that started to change around 2005, when YouTube came online and Netflix became increasingly popular. On-demand video began hogging bandwidth, and evidence surfaced that some providers were manipulating traffic without telling consumers.
By 2010, the FCC enacted open Internet rules, but the agency's legal approach was eventually struck down in the courts. The vote Thursday was intended by Wheeler to erase any legal ambiguity by no longer classifying the Internet as an "information service" but a "telecommunications service" subject to Title II of the 1934 Communications Act.
That would dramatically expand regulators' power over the industry and hold broadband providers to the higher standard of operating in the public interest.
"Despite the cable industry's best efforts to undermine our cause, we secured an open Internet, free from gatekeepers and corporate monopolies. We have an Internet for the people," said David Segal, executive director of Demand Progress, a progressive Internet activism group.
Industry officials and congressional Republicans fought bitterly to stave off the new regulations, which they said constitutes dangerous overreach and would eventually raise costs for consumers. The broadband industry was expected to sue.
"With years of uncertainty and unintended consequences ahead of us, it falls to Congress to step in," said Michael Powell, head of the National Cable and Telecommunications Association.
GOP lawmakers said they would push for legislation, although it was unlikely Obama would sign such a bill.
"Only action by Congress can fix the damage and uncertainty this FCC order has inflicted on the Internet," Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, said in a statement.
Complicating the issue is that not every broadband provider agrees on what should be done. Sprint, for example, has said it doesn't think the new regulations would hurt investment. AT&T, however, supports the less stringent rules previously put in place by the FCC, which were struck down in court. On Thursday, a senior company official said the FCC had gone too far and could cause irreversible harm.
"Does anyone really think Washington needs yet another partisan fight? Particularly a fight around the Internet, one of the greatest engines of economic growth, investment and innovation in history?" said Jim Cicconi, AT&T's senior executive vice president for external and legislative affairs.
The FCC says it won't apply some sections of Title II, including price controls. That means rates charged to customers for Internet access won't be subject to preapproval. But the law allows the government to investigate if consumers complain that costs are unfair.
Also at stake Thursday was Obama's goal of helping local governments build their own fast, cheap broadband. Chattanooga, Tennessee, and Wilson, North Carolina, have filed petitions with the agency to help override state laws that restrict them from expanding their broadband service to neighboring towns.
The FCC was considered likely to approve these petitions, which could set a precedent for other communities that want to do the same.
Nineteen states place restrictions on municipal broadband networks, many with laws encouraged by cable and telephone companies. Advocates of those laws say they are designed to protect taxpayers from municipal projects that are expensive, can fail or may be unnecessary.