Net neutrality: Mostly dead or all dead?

This week's court ruling struck a blow to Net neutrality rules, but debate still surrounds the FCC's role in regulating broadband

When the Federal Court of Appeals struck down the FCC's Net neutrality rules this week, it unleashed a raft of concerns about the future of the Internet. Far from deciding the issue once and for all, the court ruled that while the FCC does not have the authority to prohibit Internet service providers from selectively blocking or slowing Web traffic and applications, it does have some authority to regulate broadband. And as Miracle Max says in "The Princess Bride": "There's a big difference between mostly dead and all dead. Mostly dead is slightly alive."

"Mostly dead" is the condition that many proponents of Net neutrality rules currently see and fear. As InfoWorld's Serdar Yegulalp notes, "What's most unpleasant about this ruling is it doesn't destroy everything in one swoop, but rather leaves open a door for first one kind of neutrality, then another, then another, to be constricted in turn."

Others see Net neutrality as still "slightly alive," with a chance for being salvaged. InfoWorld's Paul Venezia writes that "the crux of the matter here is that the FCC never classified Internet service providers as common carriers, which legally must stay neutral about the content they carry. ... The FCC could take this opportunity to undo that great disservice by declaring ISPs common carriers. After all, in reality, that's what the ISPs are, and they should be treated as such."

Many never saw any need for neutrality rules, which prevent carriers from discriminating or blocking content and assure users of unfettered access to services and content on the Internet. Those opponents, like Forbes, say "there was no visible harm on the Internet of the sort that the network neutrality rules were intended to cure.... Of course, an isolated problem here and there emerged ... [but] if there were something wrong with a consumer's Internet provider, a competitor or two is eagerly awaiting."

Even the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which has long supported Net neutrality, voiced concerns it could be a Trojan horse for broader Internet regulation and has warned against the FCC having "broad powers to regulate the Internet for any reason that strikes the commissioners' fancy."

But InfoWorld's Bill Snyder has made a strong case that without Net neutrality provisions, we're in for a future where Verizon and other carriers turn the Web into a pay-per-view toll road. Snyder says:

As it stands now, you pay your Internet service provider and go wherever you want on the Web. Packets of bits are just packets and have to be treated equally. That's the essence of Net neutrality. But Verizon's plan, which the company has outlined during hearings in federal court and before Congress, would change that. Verizon and its allies would like to charge websites that carry popular content for the privilege of moving their packets to your connected device. Again, that's not hypothetical.

Verizon ... claims that it has a right to free speech and, like a newspaper that may or may not publish a story about something, it can choose which content it chooses to carry. "Broadband providers possess 'editorial discretion.' Just as a newspaper is entitled to decide which content to publish and where, broadband providers may feature some content over others," Verizon's lawyers argue in a brief.

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