Can the Internet Remain Open for Everyone?


Myth: This is a power grab by the FCC; the agency wants to regulate the Internet for the first time.

Reality: If the new rules stated that the FCC could suddenly regulate the entire traffic flow of the Internet, it would be a remarkable -- and troubling -- power grab. But the FCC is doing no such thing. These new rules apply only to the "pipes" -- the physical communications links that connect people to the Internet. While the Internet's diverse array of "information" services -- email, search, websites, social networking and the like -- have never been regulated by the FCC, there is a long history of FCC jurisdiction regarding the provision of physical communications infrastructure.

Ensuring that operators of such infrastructure do not abuse their position is a core function of the FCC. With respect to data communications in particular, in a long-running set of proceedings starting in 1971 known as the Computer Inquiries, the FCC focused specifically on the relationship between the operation of the physical communications network and the offering of "enhanced services" (the prior label for "information services").

From the very beginnings of the Internet we know today, the FCC has put in place rules to assure that nascent data and computer-related services were given every opportunity to thrive.

Myth: There is no reason for the FCC to act now. If ISP practices develop in ways that prove to be harmful, the FCC can always intervene at that time.

Reality: Once the damage is done it could be too late. Imagine the FCC trying to unravel a web of discriminatory deals after significant investments have been made and new business plans have been built. One can predict the future arguments; those today that say no "rules of the road" are needed would say that since there was no warning that certain kinds of business deals might be illegal it would be unfair for the FCC to seek to nullify those arrangements at a later date.

Myth: Competition provides a sufficient safeguard against any possible "bad behavior" by ISPs. Consumers can always "vote with their feet."

Reality: This is perhaps the most seductive myth because it just sounds so right, which is also why busting this myth is the most satisfying.

First, consumers have limited options -- often just two -- and in some communities less, when it comes to choosing an ISP.

Second, if you have ever had to switch your ISP, you know what a huge hassle it is.

Third, consumers don't have sufficient information to know if their ISP is meddling with the Internet; short of outright blocking, if a particular website or application performs poorly, a consumer can't tell if the cause is ISP-level discrimination or some other factor.

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