The Washington Post reports that a new bill is about to be put before Congress that would require the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to prohibit Internet "fast lane" schemes, where ISPs charge extra for faster access to premium content.
The possible long-term effects of such proposals are sparking fierce debate. Most argue there is an obvious need for some kind of government regulation -- but what kind? And how likely will this particular bill -- the Online Competition and Consumer Choice Act, sponsored by Senate Judiciary Committee chair Patrick Leahy and Representative Doris Matsui -- make a difference in the ongoing struggle between ISPs, customers, and government authorities over Net neutrality?
Here are the five most crucial factors you need to know about the bill right now.
1. The bill doesn't give the FCC any new powers
If you were expecting the FCC to be given sweeping new authority to enforce the prohibition of Internet fast lanes, don't look here. According to the Washington Post, the bill simply directs the FCC to "rely on its current authorities" to prevent Internet providers from preferring some types of content over others. One way to interpret such wording would be to have the FCC examine potentially problematic cases as they come up, instead of drafting a one-size-fits-all rule for how to lay down the law on Net neutrality.
2. An outright ban on "pay for play" may be tough to draft, or enforce
If blanket rules about neutrality are tougher to devise and enact, there might be good reasons, even apart from outward reluctance on the part of ISPs.
For one, ISPs often strike complex back-end peering arrangements with content providers for faster access to in-demand content. The arrangement struck between Level 3 and Comcast on behalf of Netflix is one recent example; Comcast's Xfinity On Demand service for Xbox customers is another.
Such agreements have the potential for abuse, but the FCC has largely avoided opening that can of worms, most likely out of a sense that it doesn't have the authority to regulate what amounts to commerce between business partners.
3. The FCC won't take the "nuclear option" anytime soon -- if ever
One oft-discussed way the FCC could change the Net neutrality game would be to reclassify ISPs as common carriers. This so-called nuclear option would mean broadband providers could be subjected to far sterner oversight, of the kind used to regulate telecommunications.
The FCC does have the authority to perform such a reclassification, but Internet providers have fought hard to keep it from happening. And in a flanking maneuver, many states have already outlawed the creation of municipal broadband services, since it's seen by some less as a way to provide consumers with greater choice than as a way to undercut business.
4. Other bills are in the works that could gut the FCC's regulatory powers over broadband
Net neutrality is a deeply divisive issue on Capitol Hill, with the split more or less along partisan lines. Ironically, both sides of the debate want to frame it as a pro-consumer, pro-competition measure. Republican-sponsored bills revolve around removing the FCC's powers to devise Net neutrality rules as a way to "promote competition." In the same vein, other legislation is being proposed that would prevent the FCC from reclassifying broadband Internet as a common carrier, "to ensure the Internet remains open and free from government interference."
5. Don't expect the bill to get very far
With the partisan split in Congress over how to handle broadband, any bill will be lucky to make it out of committee. Even if it reaches the Senate floor, it'll likely be blocked or gutted by the Republican-controlled House. The battle for ensuring a good balance between consumer protection and business innovation for the Internet isn't going to end with the passage of any one bill -- at least, not in the current Congress.
This story, "5 no-bull facts you need to know about the 'no-Internet-fast-lane' bill," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Get the first word on what the important tech news really means with the InfoWorld Tech Watch blog. For the latest developments in business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.