FCC Battle Could Change the Internet as We Know It
WASHINGTON - How much control should the federal government have over the Internet service going to your house?
The Federal Communications Commission has been trying for several years to figure out how to ensure that the Internet serves everyone equally, with all traffic over the Web getting equal treatment so that no business or website is able to move faster over the net than any others.
The idea is known as net neutrality.
"Without net neutrality there's a real risk that Internet providers could choose to give preferential treatment to certain companies, certain websites or degrade access to others," Delara Derakhshani, telecommunications policy counsel with the Consumers Union, explained.
But in January, a federal appeals court threw out the FCC's net neutrality rules.
The court essentially said that the agency doesn't have the authority to regulate high-speed or broadband Internet service providers.
However, it gave the commission some guidance on how to rewrite the rules without losing in court again.
Now the commission is working on new rules it will release next week, and the FCC chairman says everything is on the table.
"It's really integral as these services, as the Internet becomes so essential in our lives," Derakhshani said. "Now is really the time for them to act."
Derakhshani and other advocates of net neutrality want the FCC to re-classify the Internet in federal law so that the Internet would be considered a telephone, giving the FCC full authority to regulate it.
Critics say that type of regulation is antiquated and doesn't belong in today's modern technology.
"It's the type of regulation that would have been very familiar to Grover Cleveland. What are we doing talking about it for the 21st century?" James Gattuso, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, said.
Gattuso, who worked for the FCC in the early 1990s, says that instead of putting the Internet in the same category as phone and water service the agency needs to stay out of it and let the free market determine the future.
"The Internet is dynamic, innovative, constantly changing, constantly coming up with new ideas," he explained. "The FCC is none of that. The FCC is slow; it's bureaucratic. It doesn't come up with new ideas."
Gattuso compares the Internet to the highway: Increasingly, in congested areas, people are given the option to pay more to get where they're going - more quickly in so called fast lanes.
He said it makes sense for faster Internet service providers to be allowed to do the same thing, cutting deals with companies who want their traffic prioritized in a "fast lane" into your home.
"Unless you believe money is somehow an illegitimate way to allocate resources this is totally unobjectionable," Gattuso said. "It sorts out consumers by need, and those that need something more or desire something more should be able to obtain it in the marketplace."
But advocates for net neutrality argue that if big companies like Netflix can purchase a faster lane into consumers' homes, then startup companies can't compete.
"The next Facebook or the next Google wouldn't be able to get off the ground," Derakhshani told CBN News.
For advocates like Derakhshani, giving the FCC power to regulate these aspects of the Internet will guarantee it remains open and equal.
But critics like Gattuso warn such regulations would ultimately lead to worse Internet service, not better.
Meanwhile, FCC commissioners are scheduled to vote on the newest proposal next week. Then the public will have the chance to weigh in.
After that, it will be months - possibly a year - before any new rules are adopted.