4 no-bull facts you need to know about the FCC's Net neutrality proposal

If you're wondering what's all the controversy over the FCC's recent Net neutrality rules proposal, here's the short version

No, the FCC's newly proposed rules for Net neutrality don't spell the end of the Internet as we know it. But some of the concern about the proposed rules are valid, in big part because the rules don't address certain issues. Here are the four key takeaways you need to know:

1. Fast-lane charges stink, and the FCC knows it

Much of the controversy about the new FCC rules revolves around how it deals with the aftermath of a key court case decided in January, which gave providers -- Comcast and Verizon, to name two -- freedom to charge extra to have content from certain content providers like Netflix streamed more quickly.

Providers wouldn't slow down or block anything per se, but they could make it costlier for some of the most commonly used (albeit high-bandwidth) sites to operate.

This provoked the FCC to revisit its rules about what constitutes discriminatory handling of content, and on Feb. 19, it released a statement saying it intended to revise the rules. Many of the changes involve issues of Net neutrality that have come to the fore in the last couple of years, such as state laws blocking the creation of municipal broadband or the arbitrary blocking of legal content. So far, so good.

2. The FCC is planning to do little about it in the short run

But the proposed FCC rules don't make direct mention of fast-lane arrangements. Instead, it says:

[W]e will consider (1) setting an enforceable legal standard that provides guidance and predictability to edge providers, consumers, and broadband providers alike; (2) evaluating on a case-by-case basis whether that standard is met; and (3) identifying key behaviors by broadband providers that the Commission would view with particular skepticism.

In other words, the FCC might be satisfied with fast-lane agreements as long as they are billed and sold in an above-board manner. Sure, the FCC retains the right to reclassify Internet access as a telecommunications service or "common carrier," and therefore subject it to a more stringent set of regulations -- but that's a long-term nuclear option, not a short-term practical solution.

The FCC's open-ended, let's-see-what-happens approach means any regulation designed to protect consumers from arbitrarily tiered pricing will happen in the FCC's own sweet time.

3. The FCC may not do anything about back-end deals

Yesterday FCC chairman Tom Wheeler went on the record to insist that the FCC will not allow ISPs to "act in a commercially unreasonable manner to harm the Internet, including favoring the traffic from an affiliated entity," and to state that the new rules would be in place by the end of the year.

But when FCC officials were asked at a briefing whether deals like the Comcast/Netflix peering arrangement would come under scrutiny under the new rules, the short answer was no. The rules, in other words, are still focused on ISP-to-consumer connections, not arrangements between ISPs and content providers.

4. This potentially affects everyone

Right now, these types of fast-lane arrangements are most visible in the dealings between Comcast and Netflix. But nothing says providers couldn't expand on the idea -- for instance, by levying fees for faster access in Amazon's cloud services. Again, the FCC's response to such matters would be on its own time, putting smaller companies without the luxury of lavish legal teams (or lobbying apparatus) at a disadvantage.

The FCC will solicit feedback on the new rules until May 15. But until the rules explicitly recognize how preferential back-end deals between providers can be as problematic as front-end rate hikes, they will not provide much protection.

This story, "4 no-bull facts you need to know about the FCC's Net neutrality proposal," 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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