Last Thursday the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the top telecommunications regulator in the US, passed new rules to ensure all information and services should have equal access online. This gives the body its greatest power over the cable industry since the Internet went mainstream, redefining the internet as a public utility like telephone services, under Title II of the Communications Act. Crucially this will prohibit companies from paying for ‘fast lanes’ on the Internet, leaving those who refuse to pay in the ‘slow lane’, which supporters claim protects free speech. The FCC’s two Republican commissioners, Ajit Pai and Michael O’Rielly voted against the regulations but were overruled by the three Democrats on the panel.

There has been intense debate over net neutrality in America and strong lobbies from both sides. The support for net neutrality, however, eventually overpowered the strong lobby Internet cable companies have in government, with over a million public comments submitted to the FCC and Congress in support of net neutrality.

Public protest has played a key role in the campaign as well as support from Internet companies including Netflix, Twitter and Etsy. Barack Obama and figures such as Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak and Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, also supported the regulations. FCC chairman, Tom Wheeler, a former telecom lobbyist, recently reversed course in support of net neutrality, although there have been accusations that he was unduly influenced by Obama in his decisions. The National Cable and Telecommunications Association, however, claim such regulation of the Internet will raise costs and lessen profitability and investment needed to expand and speed up Internet access, hurting ‘everyday broadband users’.

A second order was also passed by the FCC on Thursday and although equally controversial was overshadowed by the net neutrality debate. The order overturned bans on municipal broadband companies competing with private cable firms, allowing municipal broadband companies to expand into areas where private companies were not investing.

In terms of the net neutrality debate, the ruling is still likely to be embroiled in a prolonged court fight with cable companies and Internet service providers that oppose net neutrality, who could sue to overturn the regulations. Republicans have also proposed legislation to eliminate Title II restrictions for broadband providers and it is likely that the FCC vote is merely the beginning of the debate.


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