In a 3-2 decision last week, the Federal Communications Commission approved new rules that are intended to prevent internet service providers from interfering with web traffic.
Commissioner Julius Genachowski and the FCC have spent more than a year working to get these rules formulated and approved, after receiving a round of public comments in 2009. In a statement released on Dec. 21, the FCC explained how these rules will attempt to curb the sphere of influence of broadband service providers over consumers and businesses.
"Broadband providers have taken actions that endanger the Internet's openness by blocking or degrading disfavored content and applications without disclosing their practices to consumers," the FCC noted in the statement. "The rules ensure that Internet openness will continue, providing greater certainty to consumers, innovators, investors, and broadband providers, including the flexibility providers need to effectively manage their networks."
Perhaps anticipating the release of the new regulations by the FCC, the Department of Commerce released its own policy framework for protecting consumer privacy online. The policy recommendations, which have not been issued as actual policy just yet, are aimed at promoting privacy while spurring innovation.
The new set of rules revolves around the concept of net neutrality, a buzzword coined by the Columbia law professor Tim Wu. Net neutrality is quickly becoming one of the most divisive issues in 21st century legal, technical, and business circles. The rules represent one of the first major steps toward an open Internet that remains competitive, fosters commerce, and encourages innovation.
Critics, however, are quick to point out that the rules lack any real power or "teeth" to protect websites and start-ups from the will of corporate broadband providers. The new rules also specifically do not address wireless networks, a major concern for many of the skeptics.
Sen. Al Franken, a democrat, has been a vocal critic of the new rules, which he argues are too kind to corporations. Sen. Franken has even started an online petition with nearly 150,000 signatures in support of net neutrality. "The Comcast-NBC merger is the first domino," the senator wrote on his website. "If it falls, the rest will soon follow. If no one stops them, how long do you think it will take before four or five megacorporations effectively control the flow of information in America not only on television, but online? How long do you think it will take before the Fox News website loads five times faster than DailyKos?"
Tim Karr, who works for Free Press, a national organization that works to reform the media, recently wrote that, "After a year of promises to deliver on President Obama's pledge to protect Net Neutrality, this chairman has pushed through a rule that favors the very industry his FCC is supposed to regulate, leaving Internet users with few protections and putting the future of the open Internet in peril."
On Tuesday, a Rassmussen poll of 1,000 people showed that American response to the new rules was tepid, too. A national telephone survey found that 21 percent of respondents do not want the FCC to regulate the Internet in the same way that it regulates other mediums, like television or radio.
As of now, it's hard to determine whether or not the new regulations will make substantive changes or offer new protections to small businesses, entrepreneurs, and start-ups that use the Internet as a prime source of income. However, as we progress into the New Year, it is certain that net neutrality will—and should—remain a focal point for legislators and businesses alike.