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We've read all 400 pages of the FCC's baffling net neutrality rules – here's what YOU need to know
The Google, the bad, and the ugly
Part one The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has finally published its net neutrality rules this morning, comprising 400 pages of text. It was accompanied by statements from all five commissioners.
We read it all so you don't have to. Four hundred pages [PDF] of legalese and formal definitions of an "open internet" in America. It takes more than a few hours to go through, and unless you are a telco lawyer getting paid by the hour, it is not the most rewarding use of one's time.
The rules were approved by the US watchdog at the end of February, but until today have remained secret. Here's what we have learned from today's document.
There's an awful lot of justification
For the bulk of the "open internet order," each page features more footnotes than core text. This is an effort by the FCC to do two things: first, make it legally watertight by demonstrating that each piece was developed from public comment through its processes; and two, show that the plan has been built by listening to people – a kind of public interest defense for the inevitable wave of criticism and lawsuits.
The end result of this for someone actually reading the order is weariness: 20 words where one would do, comes to mind. Yes, it is comprehensive and exhaustive – literally – but the Declaration of Independence, it is not.
The other side of things is that on occasion it feels worryingly like a sales pitch. As if the FCC is trying a little too hard to persuade you that it's right.
The way the US government views broadband has changed
A lot of the argument, both legal and actual, around the net neutrality regulations has been built around how the law sees the provision of internet access. With this order, the FCC is quite explicit in that it now treats broadband packages totally unlike how it has done so for the past decade.
Broadband access now, in the FCC's eyes, comprises two different and separable things: one, a telecommunications service; and two, "various 'add-on' applications, content, and services that generally are information services."
This is the key distinction and change: broadband providers are providing two different things that can be viewed and legislated for separately. From this, all else flows. That may seem obvious to people, but legally it wasn't the way of things until now.
The same rethinking "to reflect current technology" is used to explain why mobile broadband has now been brought under the net neutrality rules.
We might be getting a lot more information about our internet services
A big part – and one that is heavily contested – of the changes is the obligations that ISPs will now have to provide information on the internet access they provide.
That means that they will have to disclose what rates they offer for what speeds and any restrictions on that service. In theory at least this is great news for consumers sick of having to decipher competing offers from Comcast and AT&T, and only discovering issues once they've signed a two-year contract.
The order says: "We noted that consumers continue to express concern that the speed of their service falls short of advertised speeds, that billed amounts are greater than advertised rates, and that consumers are unable to determine the source of slow or congested service.
"In addition, we noted that end users are often surprised that broadband providers slow or terminate service based on 'excessive use' or based on other practices, and that consumers report confusion regarding data thresholds or caps."
We say "in theory" because the FCC has provided little indication of how this information should be provided – punting that instead to its Consumer Advisory Committee who it has given six months to come up with a decent format.
But being optimistic for a second, this could be excellent news for consumers, and hence for a competitive market. On the other hand, it signals incredible micromanagement of an industry by a Western power that's supposed to favor of light-touch government.
Google had its hands all over this
It is notable that on many issues within this whole complex topic that whatever Google said has happened. Google gets quoted repeatedly in the justifications, and so far at least we have not seen a single example of where anything Google opposed has been included.
Google even managed to get an entire section on interconnections removed at the last minute from the entire order. "While we have more than a decade’s worth of experience with last-mile practices, we lack a similar depth of background in the Internet traffic exchange context," the FCC says. "Thus, we find that the best approach is to watch, learn, and act as required, but not intervene now."
Google's lobbyists worked hard for their money on that one. Other companies that the FCC appear to have listened to, perhaps disproportionately: Netflix and Etsy.
The FTC is going to be pissed
As people have warned repeatedly, this order puts the FCC in the driving seat for dealing with consumer complaints, taking that role away from the traditional government agency dealing with such matters: the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).
While no government agency is exactly light-footed, the FTC does have a pretty good track record of dealing with consumer complaints. The FCC? Not so much.
But under the rules, the FCC will not be responsible for "ensuring the privacy of customer information." ISPs will have to "take reasonable precautions to protect the confidentiality of its customers’ proprietary information."
The FCC is bringing in an ombudsman to carry this out, but you can bet that the FTC is less than impressed than another is inserting itself into their business.
We don't know yet where this is going
This quick review could go on for a dozen pages, but the fact is that the real details – and holes – will take some time to come out.
We can expect some expert analyses next week, and some formal filings from telcos the week after that. By then we should have a better idea of what we are really looking at. So, stay tuned – part two of our analysis follows. ®