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Confused About Net Neutrality? Brian Fung’s Got You Covered

Our Jan. 21 hour explored the tricky, technical world of Internet Service Providers and net neutrality, which to many listeners sounded like a lot of acronym soup and technical mumbo-jumbo. We think it’s an important concept to understand — especially after a D.C. Federal Appeals Court struck down the Federal Communications Commission’s long-standing position on web access.

That’s why we’re glad that Washington Post technology policy reporter Brian Fung was able to so expertly lay out the details of the ruling, and what comes next for the F.C.C. Take a listen, and sound informed at your next dinner party or tech policy conference (if you’re into that kind of thing).

Fung explained why people are making a fuss around this court case.

“One reason is that the Internet is obviously a major platform for innovation, and what happens to Internet policy could potentially determine a lot of how the Internet develops and what services we get down the road….What we could be looking at here is looking at services that charge you more for different uses or applications of the Internet. For example, Verizon could charge you a fee for watching, you know, Netflix over the Internet a different fee than it would charge you for say, using email. And what that could also mean is that you could chop it up and slice it up in different ways. So Verizon could start selling you a package of services, and those packages could be priced at different rates and consumers would have to pay for the services they were providing…In the court oral arguments, Verizon’s lawyer said if it weren’t for the net neutrality rules, they would absolutely be looking into these alternative business models.”

But wait, you might be saying. Why do people care so much? Fung said that net neutrality may have already been a part of your web experience without you even realizing it.

It’s been a central part of the Internet— that you should be able to access whatever content you see fit and have that traffic be treated equally no matter where you are or what plan you’re on. Now that could be treated completely different. You might have a situation where you’re trying to watch Netflix, and Netflix may have signed a preferential deal with one service provider, and on the other hand you try to watch Hulu, and Hulu  may not have signed any similar deal, and so that company gets thrown to the wayside….It’s not clear to me that it would be in companies’ interest to do that necessarily. Judging by the outcry that’s already taken place as a result of the net netutraliy decision, from public advocates , I think that companies that serve Internet would have a very hard time trying to block services outright. What you might see instead is much more, I don’t want to say sneaky, but much more subtle ways of routing internet traffic from place to place.

So, you might say now, what can the F.C.C. do to prevent this big change? Quite a lot, Fung said.

There are a couple of ways they could approach this at this point. The simplest way at this point that people have been pointing out is for the F.C.C. to simply classify Internet providers as similar to utilities that the F.C.C. regulates, which includes phone companies and wireless companies and so on. Doing that would allow the F.C.C. to get around the ruling in a totally legal manner, but that would be politically fraught, and so not a whole lot of people see a lot of promise in that approach…Another option would be to simply ask the D.C. Circuit Court to rehear the case, a process that would require a vote by all the judges on the court. And given that President Obama has been trying to put more judges on the court, presumably Obama’s nominess would be friendly to the Democratic agenda of his current F.C.C., so if you kind of imagine it as a party line kind of thing, you might see more judges voting in favor for a rehearing, and then that in turn would increase the chances that the F.C.C. would get a favorable outcome, kind of  like a do-over for the F.C.C.”

But the pro-con argument for net neutrality is not necessarily as bifurcated as “Democrats v. Republicans,” Fung cautioned.

“In some sense, it does fall along party lines if you imagine Republicans to be sort of representative of business, and industry players have very much been supported by Republicans in the part, than you could sort of see this as part of the issue. But on the other hand, matters of the Internet , and Internet policy are often transcendent of partisan politics. You have civil libertarians on the one hand who both come from the realm of libertarian politics as well as conservative and Democratic politics as well.”

So is it really curtains for net neutrality? Fung has a few ideas.

“At this point, it’s very hard to say. The F.C.C. chairman Tom Wheeler has said he intends  to take action on this. He’s suggested, although hasn’t said outright that he intends to appeal the decision. And whether that happens will  take place over the next sort of several months.”

And regardless of what happens, the arguments against net neutrality will continue apace, he said.

“Verizon has been the most vocal, most outspoken business fighting against net neutrality rules. The general argument has been that net neutrality rules aren’t strictly necessary, that a lot of businesses have done a lot to make sure that the Internet stays open to begin with,so this is kind of a solution looking for a problem. There’s consumers who potentially lose out quite a bit on this ruling.”

And still, Fung cautions, there’s more to come in the case.

“This battle isn’t over yet. There’s still gonna be quite a lot that the F.C.C. can do and probably will do in the coming months so I wouldn’t say that this is all over…There’s an argument that at the margins, giving companies the ability to charge other companies for different service for access to subscribers would harm innovation and would prevent start ups from growing and help keep incumbents on top. The argument there is basically, if I’m Netflix and I’m trying to reach a consumer, say Verizon’s consumer, and Verizon is charging me, Netflix, for the right to access that Verizon subscriber, that’s an extra charge that Netflix can pay that  a smaller start up may not be able to pay.”

For more clarity on the net neutrality issue, we highly recommend the work of the fine folks at WNYC’s On The Media, who have covered this story in depth longer than anybody else out there. We also recommend this helpful flow chart from the liberal media watchdog organization, Media Matters, who do as good a job as anybody explaining why you might want to care about net neutrality.

What do you make of the net neutrality debate? Is there something to be concerned about here? Or will Internet Service Providers continue to leave things as open as they’ve been? Let us know in the comments below, or on Facebook, Tumblr and @OnPointRadio.

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