The U.S. might have invented the internet, but if the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) doesn’t get a few things right in the near future, its global reputation as the place to build internet empires might be coming to a close.
Since the FCC’s Open Internet Order regulations were struck down in a federal appeals court this January, many fear that the commission is rewriting the rules in a way that fundamentally changes how the internet works. The order embraced ‘net neutrality’ — the principle that all internet traffic should be given equal treatment, no matter which website a user is trying to access.
On Wednesday of this week, the commission said that they would propose new rules that would allow companies like Netflix and Amazon to pay internet service providers for quicker access to their streaming sites. That proposal would effectively end the vision of the internet as a public utility because it would allow larger companies to pay for faster service, therefore stifling the growth of smaller competitors, critics say.
Elsewhere on the planet, countries seem to be moving in the opposite direction. Just this week, Brazil passed what many have dubbed the “Internet Bill of Rights”, which, among other measures, bars the kind of deals the FCC proposal would allow. In addition, it would take drastic measures to protect privacy from the likes of the NSA, whose revelations of spying on Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff prompted the bill.
And they are not alone.
Earlier this month, the European Parliament voted to advance legislation that requires internet service providers to abide by net neutrality rules.
Below: A quick explainer on net neutrality, from Mashable
“We have achieved further guarantees to maintain the openness of the internet by ensuring that users can run and provide applications and services of their choice as well as reinforcing the internet as a key driver of competitiveness, economic growth, and innovation,” Pilar del Castillo Vera, a Spanish member of the European Parliament said in a statement.
However, FCC chairman Tom Wheeler disputed criticism that the proposed rules would damage the internet as we know it in the U.S., even while leaving room for companies to pay for faster service. In a blog post published on Thursday, he wrote that the commission would be able to intervene in these cases if the conduct is “commercially unreasonable.”
A month after the 2010 net neutrality rules were struck down, Netflix struck a deal with Comcast that would give the movie streaming service preferentially fast speeds. If widespread, deals of this kind would make start-ups who hope to compete with large companies at a disadvantage when trying to reach new customers.
"There's still a fair amount of unknowns. We don't know what the details are," Corynne McSherry, intellectual property director for the Electronic Frontier Foundation told Mashable. "What I worry about is the next Netflix, the service that's developing in someone's garage right now that wouldn't be able to find new audiences because it wouldn't be able to pay [for faster service]."
In Brazil, the bill that just passed explicitly rejects that possibility. The Netherlands and Chile are the only other countries in the world that have codified the idea of net neutrality.
However in the U.S., the FCC has not yet considered designating broadband service as a common carrier, comparable to a public road where everyone has equal access.
"Our legislation can influence the worldwide debate aimed at finding a way to guarantee real rights in a virtual world," Brazilian President Rousseff's official blog quoted her as saying after the law was passed.
She is right. People across the world are lauding Brazil's new measures as a model for future laws. And yet, many are looking at the FCC proposals in the U.S. with extreme skepticism.
In the battle for the internet, you might say, we are slipping.
Daniel Rivero is a producer/reporter for Fusion who focuses on police and justice issues. He also skateboards, does a bunch of arts related things on his off time, and likes Cuban coffee.