Last month, a federal court dealt a major blow to “net neutrality” rules, which required that all websites, large and small, be given equal treatment by Internet service providers.
The United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled in favor of Verizon, arguing that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) overstepped its boundaries by placing the same rules on broadband Internet providers as it does to telephone companies—essentially striking down the FCC’s net neutrality rules.
The ruling led to public outcry, with 105,000 people signing an online petition urging President Obama to classify ISPs as “common carriers” so that the FCC can enforce its net neutrality rules. A post on the White House blog on Tuesday confirmed that the President supports net neutrality but said it’s up to the FCC to reclassify broadband ISPs.
“Absent net neutrality, the Internet could turn into a high-priced private toll road that would be inaccessible to the next generation of visionaries,” White House advisers Gene Sperling, director of the National Economic Council, and Todd Park, the nation’s chief technology officer, wrote.
Net neutrality may feel like a technical issue, but small-business owners are smart to pay attention to this issue. Without net neutrality, the Internet could become “pay to play,” meaning companies could pay Internet providers like Comcast, Verizon or AT&T to ensure their web site runs faster and better than their competitors’ sites. That would essentially give large companies and major brands a huge advantage.
Fears over the absence of net neutrality rules have heightened since last week's announcement that Comcast and Time-Warner Cable plan to merge.
Some Internet providers are already building on this idea of pay-to-play Internet. AT&T announced plans in early January to introduce “Sponsored Data,” allowing companies to pay to give customers free data time when using their apps and online services. Critics fear that such programs will hurt small companies that can’t afford to pay to have their apps “sponsored.”
FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler suggested at the time that the FCC may intervene with AT&T’s plan.
"My attitude is: let's take a look at what this is, let's take a look at how it operates," Wheeler told an audience at the Consumer Electronics Show. "And be sure, that if it interferes with the operation of the Internet; that if it develops into an anticompetitive practice; that if it does have some kind of preferential treatment given somewhere, then that is cause for us to intervene."
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