Internet and Media
July 21, 2014
Would a two-tiered Internet hurt consumers?

As public reliance on the Internet grows, courts and government officials are facing new challenges on how best to regulate access to digital information. In Washington, the Federal Communications Commission has proposed rules that could create a dual system that would allow big companies, such as online retailers, to have faster Internet connectivity than most consumers and Internet entrepreneurs would enjoy. Civil rights and consumer advocates say such a system would squeeze out small websites and steer profit to big corporations. Meanwhile, critics of a proposed merger between cable giants Comcast and Time Warner Cable argue that the deal would reduce programming choices and raise consumer cable rates. And in June the Supreme Court ruled that Aereo Inc., a small company that grabbed broadcast transmissions from the airwaves and stored them in the cloud for access by consumers using a simple antenna, was violating broadcasters’ copyright protections.

Protestors outside Federal Communications Commission headquarters
            in May 2014 call for the commission to maintain “net neutrality,” the policy that gives
            all websites equal access to the Internet. (AFP/Getty Images/Karen Bleier)   Protestors outside Federal Communications Commission headquarters in May 2014 call for the commission to maintain “net neutrality,” the policy that gives all websites equal access to the Internet. (AFP/Getty Images/Karen Bleier)

The most pressing issue confronting Internet service providers, content providers and end users revolves around the concept of net neutrality — the idea that all data on the Internet should be treated equally and that service providers can’t favor, or provide faster service, to certain websites. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the courts and Congress have waded into this complicated regulatory terrain and — not surprisingly — created a firestorm of controversy.

It began in January, when a federal appeals court ruled that content providers, such as Amazon and Netflix, could pay service providers such as Verizon or Comcast for faster Internet access to their websites.1 The decision invalidated most of the “open Internet order” adopted by the FCC in 2010.2

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