Opinion: Did the court kill the Internet?

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Since its creation, the Internet has been a beacon of freedom of speech, openness and accessibility — it’s the one pillar left in society where everyone still has an equal voice. It’s where you can watch Netflix, tweet about Justin Bieber and shop for a new couch all in one place, without any restrictions on your freedom. Right?

Wrong. Or, at least, that’s what panicking spectators said after the recent D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals decision to strike down the FCC’s rules on net neutrality. The court’s decision has the Internet community up in arms, wondering what will become of the World Wide Web. Before you toss your laptop out the window, let’s examine the concept of net neutrality and whether it really is dead.

What is net neutrality?

Net neutrality is the idea that Internet service providers (ISPs) like Comcast, Verizon or AT&T should not be able to give certain websites preferential treatment in exchange for money. Upholding net neutrality is important to ensure that everyone on the Internet has an equal voice. If Google can throw Comcast some cash in exchange for making its website run faster, small companies and website owners are left in the dust. When net neutrality gets overlooked, it opens the door for ISPs to slow certain websites down or even block them altogether.

It’s been taking some hits lately.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is legally allowed to regulate telecommunications services under the Federal Communications Act of 1934. The Act defines a telecommunications service as “the offering of telecommunications for a fee directly to the public.” Internet service was once considered a telecommunications service, but in 2002 the FCC reclassified it as an “information service,” which isn’t subject to the same regulations. The 1934 Act defines information services as “the offering of a capability for generating, acquiring…utilizing, or making available information via telecommunications.”

In other words, information services allow users to share or access information over telecommunications devices. Classifying the Internet as an information service is tantamount to saying it’s a telecommunications device on a telecommunications device. Picture a semi-truck driving around carrying another semi-truck. That’s not how it’s supposed to work: the Internet is the vehicle that carries information. It isn’t the information itself.

That may sound good and patriotic, but that freedom comes at the expense of the people. Comcast began interfering with Internet traffic from Bittorrent, one of the most used Internet services in 2007. The FCC tried to stop Comcast, saying that they violated its 2005 policy of four “network freedoms,” and the conflict ended up in the D.C. Circuit Court in 2010. The court ruled against the FCC. Since Comcast’s Internet service is an “information service” under the FCC’s own rules, the 2005 regulations did not apply.

So, why don’t they just change the definition again?

More recently, Verizon contested the FCC in court, and despite new 2011 FCC guidelines for Internet service, the court still ruled against the FCC.

The FCC cannot legally regulate ISPs as long as they’re classified as “information services.” The logical thing to do would be to change the definition again. The reason why they haven’t done this is twofold: Because businesses don’t like to be regulated in general and the FCC doesn’t want to anger companies that cooperate with them now, and because Republicans in Congress are against net neutrality. If the FCC takes step to enforce it, Congress might to try to defund the FCC or pass a bill to change its powers.

Can net neutrality survive?

Right now, it’s uncertain whether net neutrality can survive without the FCC’s help. ISPs have said they’ll uphold net neutrality without FCC oversight. AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson said that there are “no plans” to alter service in light of the court decision, but failed to mention that AT&T introduced “sponsored data plans” in the past for its smartphone users. These plans allow companies to pay for the data that people use to access their content, essentially allowing bigger companies to buy customers out.

The only way to preserve net neutrality is for the FCC to stand up to Congress, reclassify ISPs and start regulating them again. Blocking and promoting sites arbitrarily may be good for business, but it isn’t good for the people who deserve a free and fair Internet. Let no one infringe upon your right to look up LOLcats and other serious websites, America. If the FCC makes the right move, we must stand with them.

Contact CU Independent Staff Writer Ellis Arnold at ellis.arnold@colorado.edu.

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