On Thursday, February 26, 2015 the FCC adopted its Open Internet Order, ensuring that Internet providers cannot create “fast lanes” and “slow lanes” by reclassifying broadband under Title II of the Communications Act while also relying on the FCC’s authority under Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act. Relying on both sources of legal authority strengthens the ability of the FCC to protect net neutrality. As noted, in ARL’s February 26th press release, the fact sheet released by the FCC when it voted in favor of the new Order, indicated that the Commission had incorporated many of the joint principles filed by libraries and higher education organizations.
The FCC has now released the text of its Report and Order which explicitly recognizes the role of libraries and institutions of higher education, including several citations and references to comments ARL filed with other library and higher education associations in July and September of 2014. The FCC’s final order represents improvements over the initial proposed rules. ARL applauds the FCC’s decision to strongly protect the open Internet and its responsiveness to the concerns of libraries and higher education.
In its report, the FCC notes the importance of net neutrality, including for specific communities:
Open Internet rules benefit investors, innovators, and end users by providing more certainty to each regarding broadband providers’ behavior, and helping to ensure the market is conducive to optimal use of the Internet. Open Internet rules are also critical for ensuring that people living and working in rural areas can take advantage of the substantial benefits that the open Internet has to offer. In minority communities where many individuals’ only Internet connection may be through a mobile device, robust open Internet rules help make sure these communities are not negatively impacted by harmful broadband provider conduct. Such rules additionally provide essential safeguards to ensure that the Internet flourishes as a platform for education and research.
The FCC’s new rules provide for bright-line rules that prohibit blocking, throttling and paid prioritization. The Order and Report explains:
105. No-Blocking. First, we adopt a bright-line rule prohibiting broadband providers from blocking lawful content, applications, services, or non-harmful devices. This “no-blocking” principle has long been a cornerstone of the Commission’s policies. While first applied in the Internet context as part of the Commission’s Internet Policy Statement, the no-blocking concept dates back to the Commission’s protection of end users’ rights to attach lawful, non-harmful devices to communications networks.
106. No-Throttling. Second, we adopt a separate bright-line rule prohibiting broadband providers from impairing or degrading lawful Internet traffic on the basis of content, application, service, or use of non-harmful device. This conduct was prohibited under the commentary to the no-blocking rule adopted in the 2010 Open Internet Order. 241 However, to emphasize the importance of this concept we delineate under a separate rule a ban on impairment or degradation, to prevent broadband providers from engaging in behavior other than blocking that negatively impacts consumers’ use of content, applications, services, and devices.
107. No Paid Prioritization. Third, we respond to the deluge of public comment expressing deep concern about paid prioritization. Under the rule we adopt today, the Commission will ban all paid prioritization subject to a narrow waiver process.
The waiver process involves a “rare circumstance” where the “broadband provider can convincingly show that its practice would affirmatively benefit the open Internet.”
The FCC report and order notes the problem of paid prioritization, including that it will “introduce artificial barriers to entry, distort the market, harm competition, harm consumers.” In its discussion of paid prioritization, the FCC cites the comments filed by libraries and higher education in July 2014 which pointed out that “it is likely that those who are able to pay for preferential treatment will pass along their costs to their consumers and/or subscribers. In some cases, libraries and other public institutions may be among these subscribers who would then be forced to pay more for services they may broker on behalf of their patrons.”
Although Chairman Wheeler initially proposed using a “commercially reasonable” standard in assessing the conduct of broadband providers, library and higher education groups expressed concerns that this standard might not adequately protect the open character of the Internet. The final report and order reveals that the FCC has clearly listened to these concerns and instead adopts a standard that prohibits unreasonable interference with an end user’s ability to access lawful content or an edge provider’s ability to make such content available. The FCC states, “Based on the record before us, we are persuaded that adopting a legal standard prohibiting commercially unreasonable practices is not the most effective or appropriate approach for protecting and promoting an open Internet.” Rather than adopting a “commercially reasonable standard,” the FCC
adopt[s] this standard to prohibit practices in the broadband Internet access provider’s network that harm Internet openness, similar to the approach proposed by the Higher Education coalition and the Center for Democracy and Technology. Specifically, we require that:
Any person engaged in the provision of broadband Internet access service, insofar as such person is so engaged, shall not unreasonably interfere with or unreasonably disadvantage (i) end users’ ability to select, access, and use broadband Internet access service or the lawful Internet content, applications, services, or devices of their choice, or (ii) edge providers’ ability to make lawful content, applications, services, or devices available to end users. Reasonable network management shall not be considered a violation of this rule.
The FCC’s order also ensures that libraries and higher education institutions are protected under the net neutrality rules. While the definition of “mass market” remains the same as defined under the 2010 Open Internet Order (“a service marketed and sold on a standardized basis to residential customers, small businesses and other end-user customers such as schools and libraries”), the FCC recognizes the potential ambiguity in the definition. The order continues:
To be clear, ‘mass market’ includes broadband Internet access services purchased with support of the E-rate and Rural Healthcare programs, as well as any broadband Internet access service offered using networks supported by the Connect America Fund (CAF). To the extent that institutions of higher learning purchase mass market services, those institutions would be included within the scope of the schools and libraries portion of our definition.
Additionally, the Chairman’s initial proposal included “the creation of an ombudsperson to act as a watchdog to represent the interests of consumers, start-ups and small businesses.” The comments filed by libraries and higher education asked for these groups to be included in this list of interests. The FCC’s final order does this by allowing complaints by “individuals and organizations,” rather than seeming to limit access to start-ups and small businesses.
As with the FCC’s 2010 Open Internet Order, it is likely that challenges will be brought against the 2015 Order. ARL will continue to monitor these issues and work to ensure that the open character of the Internet is preserved.