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FCC Makes Its Net Neutrality Rules Official (Updated)

Will go into effect on Nov. 20 … but expect challenges and lawsuits

The Federal Communication Commission’s net neutrality rules were made official on Friday morning, with their publication in the Federal Register.

As already announced, they will go into effect on Nov. 20.

The publication was greeted with praise, some of it tempered, from consumer advocacy groups, and outright derision by at least one Republican lawmaker.

The FCC adopted the rules in December in a 3-2 vote that fell along party lines with Democrats in the majority.

Also read: FCC Finalizes Net Neutrality Rules

The rules limit internet providers from favoring or discriminating against traffic that travels through their networks. According to the new rules, internet service providers would not able to favor specific internet content or prevent consumers from accessing a competitor’s website.

The regulations allow the FCC to impose fines and bring injunctions against companies that slow down internet service for customers who are streaming movies or downloading music. 

Now that the rules are official, a slew of lawsuits are expected. ISPs have argued that the FCC has limited jurisdiction over cyberspace and that the marketplace alone should determine fee schedules.

Verizon is expected to mount a court challenge, and Congressional Republicans have pledged to overturn the rules.

Rep. Marsha Blackburn, a Republican from Tennessee, issued a statement calling net neutrality “a net loser.”  She went on to characterize the FCC’s action as “just another example of a federal agency defying the will of the people. This is just more bureaucratic overregulation that will discourage innovation, hurt competition, and serve as a job-killer for the industry. The FCC is in essence building an Internet Iron Curtain that will restrict more of our freedom.”

Another Republican, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, ranking member of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, also weighed in: "Companies and industries that use broadband communications have flourished over the last decade without government intervention, yet the FCC has chosen to ‘fix' a problem that does not exist.  … In order to turn back the FCC's onerous net neutrality restrictions, I will push for a Senate vote this fall on my resolution of disapproval."

House Republicans earlier this year voted to overturn the regulations, though it was a largely symbolic effort since the Senate is controlled by Democrats who largely endorse regulations.

Consumer advocates were on the whole more positive.

Paul Desai, policy counsel for Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports, said the new rules constitute “important steps to ensure that the internet remains an open marketplace. When purchasing internet service, consumers rightfully expect that they will have equal access to all that the web offers and shouldn’t be held back because of industry tactics. For the first time, there will be clear rules to protect consumers and keep the Internet growing as an open, innovative environment.”

The non-partisan group Free Press, which champions universal access to communications, supported the rules while also voicing reservations about loopholes. 

“[The new regulations] don’t do enough to stop the phone and cable companies from dividing the internet into fast and slow lanes, and they fail to protect wireless users from discrimination that is already occurring in the marketplace and that will only get worse,” Free Press Policy Director Matt Wood said in a statement.

“Even in their watered-down form, the rules might do some good — but that would require a vigilant FCC to carefully monitor and address complaints. This commission’s track record suggests that it isn’t inclined to take decisive action to protect consumers.”

Gigi Sohn, president and co-founder of Public Knowledge, a consumer rights advocate “in the emerging digital age,” welcomed the rules while suggesting they could have been more robust.

“Although we wished they could have been stronger, we believe that the rules approved by the commission are a good start to making certain consumers and innovators are protected from the power of large telephone and cable companies to remake the Internet to suit favored partners,” said Sohn in a statement.

She went on to say that Congress should allow pending litigation to move forward in order to resolve intricate legal issues without political interference.

Taking a parting shot at those who have argued that the market and competition should be the only determiners of internet service pricing, Sohn said, “We also note that the companies providing Internet access services have informally abided by a neutrality policy since the FCC acted. In that time, the internet has not come crashing down and the government has not taken control over it.”

Markham Erickson, executive director of the Open Internet Coalition, committed to “keeping the Internet fast, open and accessible to all Americans,” called Friday’s publication “an important chapter in the effort to protect openness for consumers and innovators on the internet.”

Erickson pointed to transparency provisions that would “shine a bright light on any efforts by network operators to block or degrade content.”