Court Ruling Could Allow ISPs to Restrict Customers' Internet Usage

A new ruling by a federal appeals court on Tuesday may signal an end to ‘net neutrality’ as we know it, and open the door for ISPs to block or slow popular sites and services like YouTube, HULU and BitTorrent.

The court decision sided with Comcast, who argued that the FCC did not have the authority to insist all traffic across a broadband connection be treated equally. This means that legally your broadband ISP can monitor your Internet usage and block or slow any transactions that they want.

This regulation battle began when Comcast blocked BitTorrent access to some customers without warning in 2007. Comcast has since revised its rules and does not restrict BitTorrent, but can we trust them in the future?

Here’s a statement by Comcast from a New York Times article published 6 April 2010:

“Comcast remains committed to the F.C.C.’s existing open Internet principles, and we will continue to work constructively with this F.C.C. as it determines how best to increase broadband adoption and preserve an open and vibrant Internet.”

When I hear statements like this, I usually append ‘as long as it does not affect our bottom line or our ability to control as much of the market as possible’ to the end of them.

Before they were caught, Comcast was happy to restrict its customers’ Internet usage. Only after an embarrassing public shaming did the company adopt a commitment to “open Internet principles.”

The story of Robb Topolski, a software engineer and barbershop quartet enthusiast whose attempt to share recordings of civil war era songs eventually led to an investigation of Comcast by the FCC, is chronicled in a great Wired article.

At my current residence I have no choice as to which cable company supplies my broadband connection. If my broadband ISP decides that it is losing ad-revenues to HULU or NetFlix when I stream movies and TV shows, what is to stop them from setting my download limit to a level that makes streaming impossible or such low quality that I give up? There are no free market controls on this provider because have no option to switch to a competitor.

Can you imagine if you were blocked or charged an extra fee to make phone calls to certain businesses? What about members of certain political parties or religions? Would we stand for radio manufacturers that blocked stations that did not pay the licensing fees/technology usage fees/kickbacks that the manufacturers demanded? Of course not.

As it turns out, the FCC may have made some decisions that limit their power to regulate broadband, but the agency was created to protect the public. Just because we communicate over a new medium does not mean that the FCC should be scrapped. We need regulations to keep the Internet “open and vibrant.”

Comcast has already tried to restrict Internet usage once. I’ll be interested to see if they stick with their commitment to “open Internet principles” without a law that forces them to do so.

Photo Credit: FCC

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