Tell the FCC It Must Clarify Its Rules to Prevent Loopholes That Will Swallow Net Neutrality Whole

Deeplinks 2024-04-16


The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has released draft rules to reinstate net neutrality, with a vote on adopting the rules to come on the 25th of April. The FCC needs to close some loopholes in the draft rules before then.

Proposed Rules on Throttling and Prioritization Allow for the Circumvention of Net Neutrality

Net neutrality is the principle that all ISPs should treat all traffic coming over their networks without discrimination. The effect of this principle is that customers decide for themselves how they’d like to experience the internet. Violations of this principle include, but are not limited to, attempts to block, speed up, or slow down certain content as means of controlling traffic.

Net neutrality is critical to ensuring that the internet remains a vibrant place to learn, organize, speak, and innovate, and the FCC recognizes this. The draft mostly reinstates the bright-line rules of the landmark 2015 net neutrality protections to ban blocking, throttling, and paid prioritization. It falls short, though, in a critical way: the FCC seems to think that it’s not okay to favor certain sites or services by slowing down other traffic, but it might be okay to favor them by giving them access to so-called fast lanes such as 5G network slices. First of all, in a world with a certain amount of finite bandwidth, favoring some traffic necessarily impairs other traffic. Secondly, the harms to speech and competition would be the same even if an ISP could conjure more bandwidth from thin air to speed up traffic from its business partners. Whether your access to Spotify is faster than your access to Bandcamp because Spotify is sped up or because Bandcamp is slowed down doesn’t matter because the end result is the same: Spotify is faster than Bandcamp and so you are incentivized to use Spotify over Bandcamp. The loophole is especially bizarre because the 2015 FCC already got this right, and there has been bipartisan support for net neutrality proposals that explicitly encompass both favoring and disfavoring certain traffic. It’s a distinction that doesn’t make logical sense, doesn’t seem to have partisan significance, and could potentially undermine the rules in the event of a court challenge by drawing a nonsensical distinction between what’s forbidden under the bright-line rules versus what goes through the multi-factor test for other potentially discriminatory conduct by ISPs. The FCC needs to close this loophole for unpaid prioritization of certain applications or classes of traffic. Customers should be in charge of what they do online, rather than ISPs deciding that, say, it’s more important to consume streaming entertainment products than to participate in video calls or that one political party’s websites should be served faster than another’s.

The FCC Should Clearly Rule Preemption to be a Floor, Not a Ceiling

When the FCC under the previous administration abandoned net neutrality protections in 2017 with the so-called “Restoring Internet Freedom” order, many stateschief among them Californiastepped in to pass state net neutrality laws. Laws more protective than federal net neutrality protections—like California's should be explicitly protected by the new rule.

The FCC currently finds that California’s law “generally tracks [with] the federal rules[being] restored. (269)” It goes on to find that state laws are fine so long as they do not “interfere with or frustrate…federal rules,” are not “inconsistent,” or are not “incompatible.” It then reserves the right to revisit any state law if evidence arises that a state policy is found to “interfere or [be] incompatible.”

States should be able to build on federal laws to be more protective of rights, not run into limits to available protections. California’s net neutrality is in some places stronger than the draft rules. Where the FCC means to evaluate zero-rating, the practice of exempting certain data from a user’s data cap, on a case-by-case basis, California outright bans the practice of zero rating select apps.

There is no guarantee that a Commission which finds California to “generally track” today will do the same in two years time. The language as written unnecessarily sets a low bar for a future Commission to find California’s, and other states


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Chao Liu, Kit Walsh

Date tagged:

04/16/2024, 23:03

Date published:

04/16/2024, 14:53