The Federal Communications Commission voted 3-2 along partisan lines on Thursday to preserve “net neutrality,” or the free flow of content over the Internet, by prohibiting the establishment of “fast lanes” and taking steps to regulate broadband providers as utilities.
“Today, history is being made by a majority of this commission as we vote for a fast, fair, and open Internet,” said Chairman Tom Wheeler, who, before the meeting started, posed for a picture joining hands in a celebratory pose with his fellow Democrats—Mignon Clyburn and Jessica Rosenworcel—on the five-member commission.
The FCC’s action is seen by some as a positive one for K-12 schools, which critics maintained might have been relegated to the “slow lane” if the agency had not acted to protect open access. School and library officials feared that big-money content providers could conceivably have paid more for access to a “fast lane” to Web users, while content providers serving schools would have suffered.
Republican FCC members Ajit Pai and Michael O’Rielly, however, gave lengthy and impassioned speeches opposing the move, saying it would result in higher costs for consumers and an overeach of federal authority.
Pai alluded to the decision last December to boost E-rate funding by an additional $1.5 billion for schools and libraries, which will be supported by an annual fee of $1.90 per phone line in U.S. households. Funding for the E-rate program, which supports schools’ and libraries’ purchase of telecommunications services, had not been increased in 18 years.
“So when it comes to broadband, read my lips: more new taxes are coming,” Pai said.
But in her remarks supporting the proposal, Democratic FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn argued that schools would benefit from the FCC’s action.
“We are here so that teachers don’t have to give a second thought about assigning homework that has to be researched online,” she said, “because they are sure that their pupils are free to access any lawful website, and such websites won’t load at dial-up speed.”
The vote for “strong, enforceable net neutrality rules is a win for students, creators, researchers and learners of all ages,” said Courtney Young, president of the American Library Association, in a statement released after the vote.
The ALA had worked with nearly a dozen library and higher education organizations to advance the net neutrality principles they championed, “and we are pleased the FCC’s new rules appear to align nearly perfectly,” said Larra Clark, deputy director for the ALA Office for Information Technology Policy, in the statement.
The net neutrality issue came into sharp focus in 2013, when a federal court ruled that the FCC, which regulates interstate communication, does not have the legal authority to prevent telecommunications providers like Comcast, AT&T, and Verizon from blocking the delivery of lawful online content or discriminating against certain kinds of content providers. Verizon had filed a lawsuit challenging the FCC’s authority.
Wheeler’s original proposal last year sparked a furor among some educators, educational technologists, and library leaders, who said it kept the door open to “pay-for-play” services that would degrade the service available to their institutions. It also prompted an unprecedented number of Americans—more than 4 million—to register comments on FCC.gov, an outpouring that mostly opposed any restriction on net neutrality.
In his closing statement before the vote on Thursday, Wheeler gave “a shout-out” to the throngs who exercised their right to speak publicly about the matter.
“Today’s order is more powerful and more expansive than any previously considered order suggested. It provides a statutory one-two punch, if you will, that combines Title II of the Communications Act with the significant powers of Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act,” Wheeler said, to regulate the broadband providers. Under what he called “enforceable bright-line rules,” his plan will also ban:
- Paid prioritization, the so-called “fast lane;”
- Blocking of content, to ensure that consumers will get what they paid for; and,
- Throttling, or intentionally slowing Internet service, because degrading access to legal content and services can have the same impact as blocking.
The changes will “allow innnovators to introduce new products without asking anyone’s permission,” said Wheeler. That’s a move that ed-tech providers have supported.
“For the first time, these ground rules will apply to wired and wireless access to the network. Mobile networks account for the vast majority of Internet access. Mobile is a critical pathway,” Wheeler said.
This might not be the last word on the issue, however. One or more of the major broadband providers is expected to challenge the FCC’s actions in court.
Photos: (Top) Federal Communications Commission ChairmanTom Wheeler, center, joins hands with Commissioners Mignon Clyburn, left, and Jessica Rosenworcel, before their open hearing in Washington on Thursday.
Bottom: Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, left, joins others in applauding the FCC’s net neutrality vote after the open hearing. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)
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