Most Americans have no idea what net neutrality means or is supposed to accomplish, even though plenty has been written on the topic.
And some people, even a few informed Internet activists, remain unconvinced that the current debate over net neutrality matters that much. They wonder whether the so-called Title II reclassification of Internet providers will really result in more affordable and available broadband.
What specifically is up for debate now is Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Tom Wheeler's proposal to regulate broadband Internet providers like utilities by reclassifying them under Title II of the Telecommunications Act, among other actions. The full five-member FCC is set to vote on the issue Feb. 26.
Wheeler's plan has come under fire by many providers who believe it will add too much FCC review, costing them time and money and quashing interest in making long-term network investments. Proponents favor the approach as a way to keep the Internet open to allow all kinds of new services and applications, some of them coming from smaller companies. Some dream that video applications could emerge to allow holographic in-home remote medical screenings, for example -- assuming enough people have fast Internet connections.
Wheeler's plan, more specifically, would prevent Internet providers -- both wired and wireless -- from throttling or blocking lawful content or services and from taking payments for prioritizing content. The plan would also let so-called "interconnection" content providers like Netflix see how their Internet providers are operating the networks to handle congestion. Netflix and others in the category would then be able to complain to the FCC about how their traffic is being handled.
Attorney Blair Levin, currently the executive director of Gig.U and a former FCC chief of staff, has been following the recent debate, although he isn't directly involved in it. Levin led the FCC's effort to write the National Broadband Plan in 2011, and so far isn't reassured that however the FCC votes on Feb. 26 there will be more affordable and abundant broadband in the U.S.
"Wheeler's proposal has genuine merits, but all he's doing is clarifying the FCC's legal authority to prevent blocking, throttling and paid prioritization of traffic and to require Internet providers to provide transparency as to their data practices," Levin said in an interview.
"It's not an irrelevant proposal, but we're really debating how to retain the status quo, and nobody is saying the status quo is horrible and we have to change it. The current law just won't allow the FCC to protect the status quo."
In other words, Internet providers haven't gotten away for long with the harms being addressed, such as blocking and throttling. "There have been two examples that everybody points to where there was a violation of net neutrality and where government action was warranted," Levin noted.
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