FCC votes 3-2 to bring net neutrality back from the dead

Law responds again to pings

The FCC voted Thursday to restore America's net neutrality rules, nearly seven years after they were taken offline.

Earlier this month the watchdog confirmed its intention to vote on a proposal that would reinstate net neutrality, and that day has arrived. The vote came 3-2 along party lines.

Net neutrality, the idea that generally speaking all network traffic is treated equally, was codified in 2015 under President Obama's administration. President Trump's appointed FCC boss Ajit Pai overturned these rules in 2017.

The return of net neutrality may allay fears among some that ISPs will unfairly prioritize certain traffic for cash, whether it's web giants paying for preferential treatment of their packets over competitors, or broadband subscribers having to pay extra for non-hobbled access to things like news and media.

Net neutrality is supposed to stop that; its advocates say telcos ought to provide the same speed for all websites in order to avoid "fast lanes" for those that pay extra. Critics of the rules say market forces should straighten that all out: People will switch to ISPs that don't meddle with connection speeds, if possible, if they are that upset by it.

As a result of today's vote, the FCC will implement network neutrality using the Telecommunications Act of 1996 [PDF]. Title II of the legislation says companies classified as common carriers have to treat all traffic equally, and gives the FCC the job of enforcing that rule. As it did in 2015, the FCC has now reclassified ISPs as common carriers.

"Access to broadband internet is now an unquestionable necessity," the FCC's declaratory ruling [PDF] says. The FCC claims it's crucial to "safeguard the fair and open internet, which protects free expression, encourages competition and innovation, and is critical to public safety."

Net neutrality but with a couple of caveats

While people in the pro-net neutrality camp seem happy overall that the rules are coming back, some are critical due to perceived loopholes. Chief among these is the possibility that fast lanes on 5G networks could be permitted due to network slicing.

As you may know, network slicing can basically divide 5G networks into multiple virtual networks, which could be optimized for certain applications, such as games, first-responder communications, and so on. In the restored version of the net neutrality rules, throttling isn't permitted, but speeding up is allowed, and that technically means certain network slices could be made into fast lanes.

Groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) point out the existence of fast lanes inherently creates slow lanes.

"In a world with a certain amount of finite bandwidth, favoring some traffic necessarily impairs other traffic," the organization said. "The harms to speech and competition would be the same even if an ISP could conjure more bandwidth from thin air to speed up traffic from its business partners."

The EFF also criticized the primacy of the FCC's net neutrality rules over state-level schemes that aim to go farther. For instance, while the federal regulator thinks California's laws are consistent with restored net neutrality rules, it's possible the FCC will change its mind if California is seen to have gone too far. In that event, the FCC says it can intervene against state-level laws that are "incompatible" with its own net neutrality regulations.

It's unclear whether these apparent flaws with the FCC's planned restoration of net neutrality will become problematic. Gartner VP analyst and former Register vulture Bill Ray previously told The Register that while 5G fast lanes were "technically possible," their actual implementation would be "a long way from what the technology was designed to do." ®

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