FCC Decision Reinforces the Principle of an Open Internet

Ann Chaitovitz

The Federal Communications Commission formally voted Friday (August 1, 2008) to uphold the complaint against Comcast, the nation's largest cable company, saying that it had illegally inhibited users of its high-speed Internet service from using popular file-sharing software. The decision, which imposes no fine, requires Comcast to end such blocking this year.

—Saul Hansell, The New York Times, August 2, 2008

What was at stake
For over a decade, the Internet has disrupted and revolutionized how people understand the world and connect with each other. The Internet created an incredible open platform where any whiz kid with a brilliant idea could compete on a level playing field with the largest corporations to shape the future Internet landscape. This open access enables previously marginalized niche interests to reach potentially vast new audiences on their own terms.

As Internet access moved from dial-up to high-speed services, the phone and telecommunications industries that dominate consumers' access to the Internet—Verizon, Comcast, AT&T, Time/Warner—successfully petitioned the FCC to grant them significant new latitude in how they managed the traffic that went over their pipes.

The Comcasts of the world have been challenging the openness that has defined the very character of the Internet and have been trying to position themselves to become the new gatekeepers of where you can go and what you can do on the Internet.

What the FCC decision means
The Federal Communications Commission voted 3-2 on August 1 that, according to the official FCC statement, "Comcast's network management practices discriminate among applications rather than treating all equally and are inconsistent with the concept of an open and accessible Internet." The Commission's decision ordered Comcast to stop interfering with legal Internet traffic, to disclose to the FCC its network management practices, and to alert consumers to any future changes.

What is still at stake?
The FCC's August 2008 decision about Comcast's practices demonstrates an emerging consensus around the principle of net neutrality, i.e., a nondiscriminatory and open Internet. This is a huge victory that protects equality, access, innovation, and competition on the web. But the devil still lives in the details. While a consensus is emerging around the core principles, government policy makers still need to resolve whether the issue should be settled through new legislation, FCC regulations, or case-by-case review. Future of Music Coalition believes that we are only protected by the kind of clear, consistent, and predictable rules that are the results of legislation or regulations, not case-by-case review.

What's next?
The Future of Music Coalition will remain a watchdog on this issue—assessing, documenting, and explaining the ways that discriminatory and censoring practices on the Internet affect artists, arts advocates, and audiences. We also continue to monitor the evolving digital marketplace to understand the new technological models and how artists and audiences are adapting to them, with a specific interest in how the new technology affects the ability of artists to make a living. Access to audiences is a critical component of an artist's success, but it's not enough. We must draw connections between the market developments, the legal landscape, and the challenges artists face to ensure that their voices are heard in the policy debates.

Ann Chaitovitz is executive director, Future of Music Coalition, www.futureofmusic.org.