What the FCC's Net neutrality proposal really means

Puzzled about what the FCC's Net neutrality vote is really all about, whether you're an end user or a provider? Here's the short version

First, the facts. The Federal Communications Commission voted today, 3-2, to move forward on the Net neutrality proposal floated by FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler -- one that, in theory, could be used by ISPs and service providers to charge users extra for faster access to premium content.

Wheeler's current set of rules forbid a network provider from blocking content outright so long as it is legally available. But the proposal is also worded in such a way that it wouldn't expressly forbid a network provider from charging third parties to allow higher-priority access to certain kinds of content.

Here's five of the most important things you need to know about the vote and its consequences.

1. This proposed rule is ticking off the tech world something fierce

The biggest critics of the proposed rules are tech companies and Net neutrality advocates, who worry that allowing this will give free reign to network providers to arbitrarily add surcharges for accessing third-party Internet outfits.

Venture capitalists who invest in tech firms are also unhappy with the idea, believing it will create an undue burden on startups that need high-speed networking as part of their business model. And more general advocates for Net neutrality, such as Common Cause or the Electronic Frontier Foundation, are also dismayed

2. ... but it's tickling ISPs pink

On the other hand, network providers love the rule as it's currently framed, since it gives them the freedom to create what have been described as "toll lanes" for certain kinds of content.

Actually, network providers have been cutting preferential treatment deals for some time now. Comcast did something like this with its Xfinity app for the Xbox back in 2011, where Xbox users could have content delivered to them from within Comcast's own network that was exempt from their monthly bandwidth cap. And most recently, Netflix cut back-end deals with Comcast and Verizon to have its content delivered all the more efficiently through those providers' networks.

3. The FCC can do something -- if it wants to

Wheeler has stated he will not allow ISPs to "act in a commercially unreasonable manner to harm the Internet, including favoring the traffic from an affiliated entity." This includes what's been called the "nuclear option" -- reclassifying Internet access as a telecommunications service or common carrier and thus placing the network providers under a much tighter set of regulations.

The Supreme Court ruled in 2005 that the FCC does indeed have the authority to decide what is or isn't a common carrier. But as InfoWorld's Paul Venezia and Andy Oliver have both discussed, network providers have resisted this fiercely and lobbied hard to prevent this kind of reclassification in order to avoid having to fall all the more under the FCC's regulatory thumb.

4. ... but the picture's more complicated than it looks

What further complicates the picture behind the scenes, and what may be the reason for the FCC's overall reticence, is the way those widely-reviled back-end peering arrangements (e.g., Netflix and Comcast) are often worked out as tit-for-tat deals to avoid asymmetry between the way service providers do business with each other.

In Comcast's case, it charged Netflix that much more to carry its traffic as a way to make up for the fact that Netflix wasn't using Comcast's own content-caching system anymore. Instead, Netflix had cut a deal with another provider, Level 3, to cache Netflix content, and Comcast was upset about losing Netflix's business in this regard.

The FCC is wary of stepping in when it comes to these kind of arrangements, perhaps because it doesn't want to get slapped with accusations that it's overstepping its regulatory boundaries. But it's exactly such opaque deals -- ones where the costs of settling often just get passed along to the end user -- that need the most sunlight and exposure and that Net neutrality rules could help to guard against, if only provisionally.

5. This vote doesn't (yet) make the rule into law, or even a rule

Critics and skeptics shouldn't panic yet. The proposal in question hasn't been adopted as a formal rule yet, and it will still be subject to public feedback for some time before that happens. But it is the next step forward for a proposal whose loopholes leave network providers with a little too much leeway for some.

This story, "What the FCC's Net neutrality proposal really means," 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.

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