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Kai Ryssdal: The case at issue in the Washington D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals today was Comcast vs. Federal Communications Commission. Hereinafter known as FCC.
Two years ago the FCC said Comcast, which is a big Internet service provider, wasn’t allowed to block some of its customers who’d been using BitTorrent. That’s a file swapping service usually used to download really big files, like movies. Files that take up a whole lot of Comcast bandwidth.
Comcast said, “OK, we’ll stop.” Then it sued. In its ruling today the court came down with Comcast and against the FCC’s stated policy of Internet neutrality.
Cecilia Kang covers technology for the Washington Post. Cecilia, welcome to the program.
Cecilia Kang: Thanks for having me, Kai.
RYSSDAL: We probably ought to back up just a sec, and remind people what we’re talking about here. This thing called net neutrality. Help us out.
KANG: It’s sort of a horrible word, but it’s come to mean a lot in Washington. Net neutrality is sort of a concept. It’s this idea that all traffic on the Internet should be treated equally. And how that’s distilled into real world terms as a consumer, it means that if you’re a subscriber of Verizon or Comcast, the quality of the delivery of, say, the Web site Hulu, videos on Hulu, should be treated the exact same as, say, Video on Demand by Comcast. Other applications like Skype should be allowed on your cell phone without a carrier saying yes or no as to whether that should happen. All bits should be treated equally is sort of the idea behind it.
RYSSDAL: And then the ruling today, what did the courts say?
KANG: The courts said that the FCC actually didn’t have the authority, didn’t have the power to rule against Comcast in 2008 for blocking BitTorrent, an application over the Web. And that ruling may be narrowly focused between Comcast and the FCC. But it really opened sort of a Pandora’s Box of lots of other questions as to whether the FCC has the ability to regulate Internet services at all.
RYSSDAL: In terms of how this might play out for consumers now, though, could we conceivably, if we wanted to go to Hulu and watch a butch of videos, could Comcast now say to us, “You have to pay more if you want to watch that ’cause it takes more data, more bits.”
KANG: So technically they could. That’s what a lot of consumer groups and some analysts are saying is that a service provider could decide to block or slow down an application. In reality that would be awfully difficult. Mostly because consumers would be outraged if they found that, say, their Hulu service was disrupted or YouTube was shut down because those videos compete with Comcast video services. So it would be very difficult for an ISP to do that, and the ISPs would argue that it’s not in their business interest to do so.
RYSSDAL: Just to put this into context a little bit, let’s think back a couple of weeks. The FCC came out with this huge national broadband plan. I mean the FCC has big Internet plans.
KANG: It’s this crazy juxtaposition right now, where the FCC is 100 percent geared towards bringing the agency, bringing the country into this Internet era and really looking at rules and frameworks that would help bring broadband access to 100 million homes, for example, in a decade. This is all happening while this court decision is putting any sort of plans that the FCC might have going forward into real flux.
RYSSDAL: Might the Internet service providers just say, “Listen, let’s let the markets sort this out. We’re not going to do anything bad for consumers. But hey, let’s see what market forces bring to bear here in the wild, wild west of the Internet.”
KANG: To a large extent that is what they’re saying. In fact, Verizon and AT&T have said as recently as two weeks ago that maybe the FCC really shouldn’t be regulating Internet service providers and that maybe the government should have much more of an arm’s length on these issues because the Internet is so fast moving, and regulations could be so cumbersome and the Internet economy creates jobs and at a time when we really need jobs producing companies to do well. So they’ve been arguing that quite a bit, but consumer protection groups would say if you don’t have sort of a cop on the beat, you could have service providers really running amok and making decisions such as blocking or degrading other applications that compete against theirs for their business advantage.
RYSSDAL: Cecilia Kang. She’s a technology writer for the Washington Post. Cecilia, thanks so much.
KANG: Thank you.
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