Keep the Internet Open

By David ButlerConsumer Reports

The debate over the future of the Internet is heating up, and the outcome could fundamentally change your online experience.

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At Consumers Union, the policy and advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, we strongly support the principle of an open Internet. When you go online, you should be able to choose the content you want, and your Internet service provider, or ISP, should deliver all that content to you the same way. Whether it’s a big company such as Amazon or a startup, you ought to be able to access them at the same level of quality and speed. This concept of net neutrality was essential to making the Internet the extraordinary resource of information, ideas, and commerce that we enjoy today.

What we don’t want is your ISP to charge certain sites for special treatment, while other sites are saddled with slower speeds and second-class status. That would give a handful of providers, including Comcast and Verizon, the power to pick winners and losers in the marketplace. The content companies with the deepest pockets would be strong-armed into paying ISPs for priority service, while other companies would find it impossible to compete. You'd likely wind up being charged more money with fewer choices and options online than you have today.

Four years ago, the Federal Communications Commission created rules to preserve an open Internet. But Verizon filed a lawsuit against the rules, and a court struck down most of them. In the spring, the FCC chairman, Tom Wheeler, proposed new rules, which sparked a firestorm of criticism from citizens and groups—including Consumers Union—who said the proposal was not nearly strong enough.

For instance, we believe the proposal would allow the kind of “paid prioritization” deals that go against the most basic principles of an open Internet. Nearly 4 million people have sent comments to the FCC—the vast majority in favor of tougher standards—while the agency keeps working on a final set of rules.

We think the best way for the FCC to preserve an open Internet is to reclassify broadband ISPs as “common carriers,” under what’s known as Title II of the Communications Act. This would give the FCC the legal authority it needs to prevent ISPs from blocking or discriminating against content providers. A common carrier would not be allowed to cut special deals with one company to get better treatment than its competitors.

President Obama recently came out in support of reclassifying ISPs as common carriers. We were pleased to hear it, because we think this really is the best path to keeping the Internet open. We have driven home that same point to the FCC in meetings and formal comments we filed with the agency, and we will keep working to get the strongest possible standards to help consumers.

This feature is part of a regular series by Consumers Union, the policy and advocacy arm of Consumer Reports. The nonprofit organization advocates for product safety, financial reform, safer food, health reform, and other consumer issues in Washington, D.C., the states, and in the marketplace.

Read other installments of our Policy & Action feature.

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