The Federal Communications Commission voted three to two on Tuesday afternoon to approve a new set of rules governing the practices of broadband Internet service providers. The new policy bans discrimination by Internet companies of any specific online service. But does not go so far as to bar those from charging more money for faster service, leaving open the potential for a “tiered Internet” scenario.

The rules differ for “wired” and “wireless” Internet providers, as well; wireless companies are allowed to block certain apps and services so long as they are not in direct competition with their own products. Chairman Julius Genachowski says this differentiation is intended to encourage innovation and growth of wireless services, but that the commission would leave open the possibility of additional regulation in the future.

So is the new FCC policy good or bad for the American consumer? News readers will be forgiven if they frankly have no idea. The bombast and posturing surrounding the vote is so loud, and its details so foggy and arcane that it’s hard to make out what the “story” of the story is.

All the political equivocations don’t help (“We are not endorsing or approving practices that the rules do not prohibit,” says Genachowski, in an impenetrable triple negative). Nor does hair-splitting language like this (from an article in Broadcasting & Cable):

Commissioner Michael Copps’ plans to concur rather than approve the order, while Commissioner Mignon Clyburn will approve in part and concur in part. A concurrence is short of approval, but is still a yes vote.

Brian Stelter’s piece on the New York Times website, “F.C.C. Approves Net Rules and Braces For Fight” focuses on the legal challenges to this new policy (and the commission’s authority to make and enforce it) that will surely follow, as companies like Verizon squirm under the new rules, however watered-down those rules are. The Wall Street Journal headline directly following the vote takes a different tack, emphasizing that this is the most authority the government has ever exercised over the Internet: “FCC Gives Government Power to Regulate Web Traffic.”

NPR reporter Larry Abramson kept it short and sweet and just about right on Tuesday’s Morning Edition, ahead of the vote:

Consumer groups are already attacking the rule as ‘fake’ net neutrality. With many in Congress opposed to any regulation of the Internet, the rule may have few friends, and lots of enemies.

Wired plays up a different angle, with Ryan Singel’s piece on the Epicenter blog: that no one likes the new policy except for corporate interests:

The federal government’s new internet fairness policy — designed to prevent the nation’s cable and DSL internet service providers from meddling with the open, free-wheeling nature of the internet — was met with boisterous criticism Monday night from all sides of the political spectrum.

[…]

There was one group, however, which seemed content with the new rules: the nation’s cable and telecommunications companies, including AT&T, Comcast and Verizon. They’ve been making the rounds in recent weeks signaling their support for Chairman Julius Genachowski’s compromise deal.

But to hear it from Politico, Republicans and corporations are both furious to cede a big win to Democrats, who are all for the new policy.

Adopting the Net neutrality order is a much-needed win for Genachowski, who has been trying to find a compromise on the divisive issue for the past two years.

[…]

The White House will also likely claim victory. Although some stakeholders complain the FCC’s order goes either too far or not far enough, Genachowski and top Democrats say it represents progress on an issue that has been mired in political wrangling for years. President Barack Obama made Net neutrality a campaign promise, and the FCC’s action allows the administration to show advancement on an important policy priority.

And:

The order does not explicitly ban “pay for priority” or allowing carriers to charge an extra fee for faster service, but the FCC says it will assess such situations on a case-by-case basis. That strengthened standard is likely to frustrate big companies like AT&T and Verizon. The official text of the order will not be released for several days.

(The text is available in snippets as of Tuesday afternoon here.) Kim Hart and Tony Romm end their piece with this kicker, showing whose side they’re on:

But McDowell reminded the packed room at the FCC’s meeting that the agency is going against the explicit direction of lawmakers.

“The FCC is not Congress. We cannot make laws,” he said. “The FCC has charted a collision course with the legislative body.”

The Washington Post’s technology writer Cecilia Kang on Monday night characterizes also Genachowski’s proposal as an expansion of government control, writing that it “seeks to add teeth” to current policy. The lead:

Federal regulators are poised to enact controversial new rules affecting Internet access, marking the government’s strongest move yet to ensure that Facebook updates, Google searches and Skype calls reach consumers’ homes unimpeded.

Under the regulations, companies that carry the Internet into American homes would not be allowed to block Web sites that offer rival services, nor would they be permitted to play favorites by dividing delivery of Internet content into fast and slow lanes.

“Fast and slow lanes” on the information superhighway—one of two commonly cited metaphors for regulation of the Web. Copps used this meme himself when he spoke earlier in the month at The Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism about the need for strengthening regulation in broadcast media. He referenced Columbia Law professor Tim Wu’s book The Master Switch, which uses case studies from previous communication technologies—like radio, film, network television, and cable—to demonstrate how media consolidation and corporatization could also potentially imperil an open Internet.

“And while [Wu] doesn’t believe the Internet is necessarily doomed to tread the same destructive path, surely we see signs that it could,” Copps said. “Consolidation is already well-advanced, and businesses are clearly dreaming about on-ramps with toll booths dotting the information highway.”

The second comparison that persists in reporting on FCC policy, usually to defend Internet providers’ right to offer tiered/prioritized service, is the comparison to cable television. For instance, Wilson Rothman, writing on the Technolog blog on MSNBC.com, finishes his post on Tuesday with these thoughts:

I don’t mean to present some dystopian pay-for-play future where we’ll all walk around with virtual taxi meters on our heads. I think that for the most part, the regulation — and the lack of regulation — will manifest itself in new services. It’s like cable TV. First there was a basic subscription, then there were premiums, now there are 30,000 options, all listed with nickel-and-dime rates or in shiny bundles. We complain about the increasing cost of cable, and some (though not many) of us jump ship. But we do get more than before.

That’s how it’s going to play out — you’ll get more, you’ll pay for more.

As more details come out about the commission’s new rules and just how the FCC hopes to enforce them—and as the bluster persists—we’ll continue to follow the developments.


Lauren Kirchner is a freelance writer covering digital security for CJR. Find her on Twitter at @lkirchner