Net Neutrality Court Ruling Could Cost Consumers, Limit Choices

A federal court ruling could spell the end to what's known as "net neutrality." The Federal Communications Commission had tried to prevent Internet service providers from favoring one type of web traffic over another. But the court ruled against the FCC. Consumer advocates say this week's decision could ultimately mean higher prices for your Internet service. Host Arun Rath talks with NPR's Laura Sydell.

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ARUN RATH, HOST:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath.

This was a bad week for advocates of net neutrality. A federal court struck down Federal Communications Commission rules intended to prevent broadband service providers from, for example, favoring one website over another.

NPR's Laura Sydell says consumer advocates are worried, the decision could ultimately mean higher prices for your Internet service.

LAURA SYDELL, BYLINE: The regulations said that your Internet service provider or ISP can't favor some kinds of Web traffic over others. So, say, your ISP strikes a deal with Amazon Prime for its video streaming service, but you subscribe to Netflix. Your ISP could put Amazon on a high-speed lane on its network and relegate Netflix to a slower lane, making it less appealing. Now, Netflix might offer to pay Verizon more to get in the fast lane, and they may pass that cost onto you. So no more 7.99 a month for all you want to watch.

There's even some concern here among political groups. For example, the Christian Coalition has been a supporter of network neutrality rules because they worry that if, say, Verizon was interested in lobbying for a particular cause, it might slow traffic or block access to websites with alternative points of view.

RATH: Before the rules were made in 2010, was there any evidence that ISPs were blocking traffic?

SYDELL: As a matter of fact, there was. And it's actually why these rules were put on the books. Here's what happened. Back in around 2007, a fan of barbershop quartet music was using the software BitTorrent to uploading Cher's favorite songs. And the upload started to slow to a crawl, and he went public about it. It turns out Comcast was slowing BitTorrent traffic. Some of our listeners may know that BitTorrent software is often used by people who are sharing unauthorized music and movie files, though it's also used by college professors sharing large research papers.

But Comcast said BitTorrent traffic was hogging its pipes, so they slowed it. The FCC cited Comcast for slowing it, and Comcast took the FCC to court and it won. And that's when the FCC tried to write the open Internet rules that just go struck down.

RATH: So then why did the appeals court strike down those rules?

SYDELL: Even further back before Comcast - the Comcast case, the FCC made a decision that's been making it very hard for the commission to regulate traffic on the Internet. It split phone service and Internet service, so the FCC can regulate phones more heavily. But the FCC decided it didn't want to over regulate this new technology known as the Internet. So it put broadband in a different category, something called information services.

Verizon didn't like the way the FCC tried to use open Internet rules. It said it looked an awful lot like telephone regulations. Verizon sued, and the D.C. circuit court agreed and ruled that the FCC had to classify Internet differently if it was going to make these kind of regulations.

RATH: So where do we go from here? Are consumers going to see some changes to their service? Or is the FCC going to try another way to regulate?

SYDELL: Well, theoretically, your ISP can start to make changes right away. But the FCC may not be out of tricks. They could appeal, though the word on the street is that's unlikely. The FCC could try to reclassify broadband and make it more like phone service. But every time they talk about that, some members of Congress go nuts. This decision, however, was not a total loss for the FCC. The court did say the agency has the right to regulate some aspects of Internet service.

So it's possible and probably more likely that the agency is going to try and find a way to use the decision to rewrite the rules in a way that fits in with the language of the case. And we could end up going through all of this all over again.

RATH: That's NPR's digital culture correspondent Laura Sydell. Laura, thank you.

SYDELL: You're welcome.

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