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Net Neutrality day is here: a guide to today’s vote

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What is the right way to run the internet? After months of pitched debate over so-called net neutrality, the FCC will finally vote on a proposal that will prevent broadband providers from slowing down or speeding up certain websites.

While there’s little doubt about the outcome of the vote, Thursday’s FCC hearing could still bring some surprises. Here’s an overview of how the process will unfold, key issues to watch, and what will happen next.

When is the vote taking place?

The hearing begins at 10:30am ET at the FCC in Washington, where the five Commissioners will vote on two items. The net neutrality proposal is the second item (the first is about municipal broadband – update: which has passed 3-2), and a vote is expected to occur in the early afternoon.

What are they voting on?

The crux of the proposal is new regulations that will replace the net neutrality rules that a court struck down in early 2014. The new rules themselves (contrary to recent rhetoric) are rumored to be 8 pages long and, under FCC convention, are an appendix to a larger document that contains the Commissioners’ positions.

The FCC staff will summarize the key parts of the new rules, but the document itself is not likely to be available to the public for several weeks. This is due to agency protocol, which gives the Commissioners time to add final comments (though the substance of the rules will not change between now and when they appear).

How exactly does the vote take place, and what will be the outcome?

After the staff summaries, each of the five Commissioner will offer their comments in order of seniority. Republican Commissioner Ajit Pai, who has been an outspoken critic, is expected to speak for an hour so this could take some time. They will then take a vote, and hold a press conference.

The outcome will be a 3-2 vote on partisan lines, with the two Democratic Commissioners siding with Chairman Tom Wheeler. (Update: that’s exactly what happened)

What are the key things to watch?

While the outcome of the vote is a sure thing, some key details of the proposal are still unknown. The most high profile of these concerns what the FCC will do about so-called interconnection, and what the rules will do to prevent ISPs from forcing sites like Netflix to pay a toll in return for not having their streams degraded.

There is also the issue of “zero rating,” which is when phone and companies exclude certain apps or services (such as music) from a customer’s monthly data cap. While this violates the general principle of net neutrality, Chairman Wheeler has yet to explain how strictly the new rules will prevent this. (Read my colleague Stacey Higginbottam’s excellent overview of potential loopholes here).

Finally, since much of the recent net neutrality debate has been about theater, it will be worth watching to see how far Commissioner Pai (who has been waging a nasty political and social media campaign against Wheeler) will go to stir the pot during the hearing.

So will the new net neutrality rules go into effect right away?

No. According to Harold Feld of Public Knowledge, the rules only go into effect 30 days after they appear in the Federal Register, which could take a few weeks.

Will there be lawsuits?

Yes, buckets of them. Expect big telecom companies like Verizon or AT&T to sue in the coming weeks. Meanwhile, it’s possible that activist groups on both the right and the left may bring suits of their own.

What will be the effect of the lawsuits?

Feld says, in the event of multiple lawsuits, the first order of business will be for various appeals courts to decide which of them will take the case. After that, the telecom companies are likely to receive a brief stay of the rules until they can file their first round of arguments. At that point, the stay will likely be lifted while the court hears the case.

The court cases are likely to kick off in March or April, and a ruling on whether the new FCC plan is legal will probably come in late 2015 or early 2016. In the meantime, the net neutrality rules will be in effect.

I just can’t get enough of this stuff! Where can I learn more?

Gigaom will have updates on the days proceedings through Thursday. The FCC will have a live stream here (if the internet holds up!).

I’ll be tweeting about it here. Other Twitter accounts to watch are those of Gigi Sohn (FCC lawyer), Commissioner Pai, Public Knowledge’s Feld and Professor Tim Wu (who coined “net neutrality” in the first place).

For political flavor: The New York Times has opined on the FCC’s “wise new rules” here while the Wall Street Journal, on the other hand, hates everything about the FCC (paywall).

This story was corrected at 10:05am to note the court decision was in 2014, not 2013.

8 Responses to “Net Neutrality day is here: a guide to today’s vote”

  1. You mean the same “archaic telecommunication regulation” that allowed for the Internet as we know it to flourish, right? Honestly, whatever else the government has done inefficiently/wrongheadedly, the Internet is one they got mostly right out of the gate.

  2. Thomas Kelo

    Net Neutrality is a farce – a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist, but is greatly exaggerated as “saving the internet”. The only company that is currently being impacted to a large degree by the status quo of “no net neutrality” is Netflix, a large and successful corporation with a service that eats a lot of bandwidth, and to date has been able to sign agreements to keep content flowing. Ultimately, Net Neutrality supporters are supporting government using an archaic telecommunication regulation to set up rules that will help a large corporation.

    The fact that people are supporting an unelected government agency (long known to be captured by the special interest it purports to regulate) passing rules that have been kept secret from the public just shows how irrationally insane Americans have become.

    Comcast’s stock is still at an all time high before the vote, so investors either anticipate these rules to help Comcast or somehow the FCC has kept them secret from everyone (I have doubts).

    • LarryLawsuit

      You clearly don’t understand the problem or the precedent that is set by Comcast charging Netflix. Comcast deliberately throttled network bandwidth from Netflix to their customers. Their customers are paying to use the Internet however they want, and Comcast sells them a data plan that “guarantees” a certain amount of bandwidth which the customer should be able to use however they like. If they choose to use it to view Netflix, they have paid for the ability to do so. Comcast saw an opportunity to charge a fee, so they set up a toll booth to Netflix. They knew they couldn’t gouge their own customers any more than they already do, so they set up this toll booth on the side of Netflix. Netflix isn’t forcing anything down the Comcast pipes – Comcast customers are requesting it with the access they have already paid for. It is a mafia tactic plain and simple, and should not be allowed.

      A great analogy to what they did goes like this: You like to order Pizza from Pizza Hut, but your telco has a contract with Dominoes. So every time you call Pizza Hut, the calls mysteriously keep dropping, or the call quality is so poor that you can’t even place your order. But for some reason when you call Dominoes it always works perfectly.

      Imagine if that was the world we lived in. That is why these laws are in place. You really do not understand the problem and why Net Neutrality is a good thing, and also why most voters support it. The only reason to reject it is if you are being lobbied by the ISPs.

        • Kevin D. Osborne

          Charles, you’ve got it. Others don’t. I don’t ever watch Glenn Beck; I can’t stand him. My work is in web development and IT, and understanding HOW this all works, you’ve got a proper understanding of why Net Neutrality is a good thing.