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Backgrounder

Backgrounder on 'net neutrality'

Times editorial board member Jon Healey explains the debate around the FCC's proposed rules.

November 09, 2011|By Jon Healey

Critics of the rules say they still interfere unnecessarily with ISPs' ability to ease congestion and develop new revenue streams. Meeting the ever-growing demand for bandwidth is expensive, and if ISPs can't charge content and service providers, they'll raise prices. Some also argue that the uncertainty caused by the rules will deter investment in broadband pipes.

Supporters counter that technological advances are steadily lowering the cost of supplying bandwidth. If ISPs are allowed to charge sites or services to deliver their data — for instance, by creating "fast lanes" on their networks that take priority over other traffic — upstarts, innovators and noncommercial users will have trouble competing with major brands, Hollywood studios and other deep-pocketed interests.

In essence, the debate boils down to a question of what freedom online is most worth preserving: the freedom from regulation, or the freedom from interference by ISPs.

Where does the situation stand?

Congressional Republicans, who've made it a priority to repeal regulations adopted by the Obama administration, are trying to overturn the FCC's action through a legislative technique known as a resolution of disapproval. The House passed such a resolution in April on a largely party-line vote; the Senate is next. However, even if it attracts enough Democratic votes to pass, it's likely to be vetoed by President Obama, who advocated net neutrality in his 2008 campaign.

A more significant challenge to the rules will come in court, where they are under attack from both flanks. Verizon and MetroPCS, which sells prepaid cellphone service, have sued to block the rules, arguing that the FCC exceeded its legal authority. Liberal advocacy group Free Press has sued too, claiming the exemption for mobile networks was arbitrary and capricious. So even if the rules get past Congress, as expected, they could be thrown out by a federal judge.

Jon Healey is on the editorial board of The Times.

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