The FCC is meeting this morning to consider a proposal about "net neutrality" (watch live here) a topic that no doubt causes your eyes to glaze over. But today's vote could impact the way you conduct business online, the way you receive your entertainment through the Internet, the blogs you read (ahem), the movies you stream and especially the music you download.
The commission today is expected to approve the plan, which should be something resembling these proposals published in October, which finally puts net neutrality -- the idea that Americans have the freedom to access whatever they want online through whichever software and service provider they choose -- on paper. That's a good thing. The catch ... well, there are two. First, many aren't really sure the FCC has the authority to do this. Second, if you codify something on paper for the U.S. government, it's best if the rules are complete and cover every eventuality, which these don't. The rules attempt to make it more difficult for your Internet service provider (Comcast, AT&T, RCN, whoever) to outright control or certainly influence what you can access online, but there are loopholes.
The thumbnail history: Much of this came down because of the scuffle between Comcast and Netflix. The movie rental company offers a great, easy-to-use service, now streaming a ton of content. That content is a lot of data, which fills up the broadband Internet lines managed by Comcast and other Internet providers. Comcast is burdened by the extra data to manage, so it threatened to block Netflix or charge extra for its users to access Netflix. The FCC said, nope, you can't do that. Comcast went to court; the court said, based on the Bush administration's deregulation of just about everything, sure they can. The FCC scratched its head and said, hey, I guess we need some rules for this.
Minnesota Sen. Al Franken said claims the new rules are worse than doing nothing, that they don't go far enough to prevent ISPs from favoring your access to some content that either doesn't tax their system too much or, more importantly, serves their own commercial interest. Since Comcast is leading this charge, and Comcast is about to merge with NBC-Universal, the conspiratorial mind reels. Comcast could then, in theory, prioritize the streaming of NBC shows and music from Universal record labels.
Google and Verizon already have offered proposals for tiered service -- users who stream more data (like music and movies, legally or otherwise) through the cables pay more for the service than those who use the Internet only to check their e-mail.
The other kicker: The plan being voted on today applies net neutrality to all Internet access ... EXCEPT from mobile devices. You know, the portal you use more and more as your primary means of accessing the Internet.
At least, that's what's been reported. As of this writing Tuesday morning, the actual document being voted on by the FCC is still a secret and won't be published until days after the vote.
Then again, this all may be toothless from the start: Another Senator has filed an amendment cutting off FCC funding that would support implementation of any of the new rules.
Read more: This good explanation of net neutrality and why the fuss from NPR; this case for net neutrality being the free-speech issue of our era from the ACLU; another good take from NPR using Chicago's OK Go as a prime example of musicians who benefit from an open Internet.