Netflix, Twitter and Internet activists have won. Big cable has lost. At least until the federal courts get involved, when everything could change. Five things you need to know about the Federal Communications Commission's vote Thursday to enforce "net neutrality" rules for the broadband industry:
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1. NET NEUTRALITY IS WHAT YOU ALREADY HAVE. With few exceptions, the cable and wireless companies that provide much of the nation's broadband already operate under the idea of net neutrality. This means they don't discriminate among similar types of web traffic, and don't intentionally slow or block data.
The FCC decision was intended to make sure that the Internet as we know it doesn't change. Regulators say this was important because some providers had signaled an interest in manipulating their network traffic, potentially entering into paid deals with sites like Netflix to move their content faster. But these efforts never got very far, and many providers say they don't want to upset consumers by violating basic net neutrality principles.
2. THIS WILL AFFECT YOU. JUST NOT ANYTIME SOON. The FCC put the Internet in the same regulatory camp as the telephone, regulating it like a public utility. That means whatever company provides your Internet connection, even if it's to your phone, will now have to act in the public interest and not do anything that might be considered "unjust or unreasonable." If they don't, you can complain and the FCC can step in to investigate.
But broadband providers are expected to sue. It's likely they will ask the courts to delay implementation of the rules pending judicial review. And if a judge agrees, the legal wrangling could slip well into the next president's first term.
Even if a judge grants a stay on the rules, it's unlikely that Internet service providers would start throttling web traffic or creating paid fast lanes. Most consumers don't like the idea, and companies would face a fierce public backlash.
3. THE CABLE COMPANIES LOST. The cable and wireless companies that offer broadband say the worst part about the new rules is that they aren't predictable. Republican FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai compared it to playing a game in which white flags would arbitrarily be thrown on the field. Pai and industry officials say this kind of uncertainty will affect how Internet providers operate. Providers will be much less willing to offer new services to consumers if they think the FCC might get involved, they say.
4. INTERNET ACTIVISTS ARE HAVING A MOMENT. Small Internet-based companies won a fight in Washington without deep pockets and lots of lobbyists. They did it by drumming up support among average Americans, who flooded the FCC with a record-breaking number of public comments. As an executive at Mozilla put it, "millions of people stood together as citizens of the Web to demand those strong protections." President Barack Obama gushed that the FCC decision "wouldn't have happened without Americans like you."
5. NEXT STOP IS CONGRESS. While broadband providers turn to their lawyers to mount a legal protest to the FCC rules, Republican lawmakers say they will push for a legislative fix. Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, is expected to lead this fight, starting with March 18 hearings. However, the FCC regulations give most Democrats exactly what they wanted in the first place. And Obama likely would veto anything else. So it's unclear whether Thune or others might be able to find any momentum before the next presidential election.