Bishops' long-held goal of preserving net neutrality upheld in court

Demonstrators gather outside the White House in November 2014 to show their support for net neutrality. (Flickr/Joseph Gruber)

The U.S. bishops have long held that net neutrality—the concept of treating all traffic on the internet the same—was necessary for a well-functioning society.

It would do nobody any good, the bishops argued, if internet service providers discriminated among websites for whatever reason.

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The bishops' position came with the experience of the Federal Communications Commission axing television stations' public interest requirements in the 1980s. Until then, dioceses and other faith groups could get free airtime. Individual bishops arranged for a weekly "Mass for shut-ins" to be aired live from a TV studio. But with the waning of the requirement, dioceses had to pay for airtime, find new outlets for the Mass, record Masses in advance of Sunday to fit the TV station's schedule, or simply drop it altogether.

In the past decade, Americans have seen some instances of internet discrimination, often based on cost and capacity. Some providers were caught "throttling," or slowing down an internet user's experience over claims that the user was using too much of internet capacity at one time. In other instances, ISPs, as they are known, cut deals with some major bandwidth users to give them a fast lane of sorts on the information superhighway. There were also cases when ISPs simply blocked users from accessing materials the ISPs believed to have been copyrighted, even when that was not the case.

There also have been concerns about rigging the internet to maintain a competitive edge. Back in 2005, the FCC told one North Carolina-based ISP to stop blocking a voice-over-internet-protocol service that competed with the ISP's own service. Those concerns have grown as ISPs have acquired content. In theory, Comcast, which owns a stake in Hulu, could slow down Netflix traffic in favor of Hulu's. In 2008, the FCC ordered Comcast to stop blocking BitTorrent, a file sharing protocol used to distribute data over the internet; Comcast claimed it had only been "delaying" traffic.

After the FCC began a proceeding in 2009 on net neutrality, several lawmakers complained, saying it was, in essence, a solution in search of a problem. Still, the FCC went ahead in 2010 and issued an "open internet" order, which was published the following year in the Federal Register.

Not surprisingly, one ISP—Verizon—challenged the FCC rule classifying the internet as a telecommunications service before 2011 was out. In an oral argument in federal court, Verizon admitted the FCC's rule was the only thing keeping it from charging websites to have access to Verizon subscribers. The ISPs won in court, though.

The FCC came up with a new plan: reclassifying the internet as a utility deserving of regulation. Some Republicans introduced bills revoking any FCC power to regulate the internet, while two Democrats offered legislation banning fast lanes and slow lanes on the internet.

By this time, Netflix made a pact with Verizon and Comcast to pay more to resolve video quality issues. T-Mobile exempted some online music providers from the data cap it imposed on wireless users.

The FCC's new order came in March 2015, 14 months after its loss in court. It had the backing of President Barack Obama and an overwhelming percentage of the 3.7 million Americans who commented on the proposed rule to the FCC. The same federal court that turned down the FCC's first try at net neutrality in 2014, heard oral arguments last December, and on June 14 upheld the FCC's authority to issue the order and affirming that no ISP should be able to block or throttle a connection to control any user's online experience.

What does this mean in the short-term? For content providers—the bishops among them—it should mean that they won't be forced into a "pay for play" situation in which they have to fork over money just to get the same treatment as anybody else's websites, much less get run off the road of the information superhighway. For internet users—frankly, most of us—it should mean that anything we want to see on the internet should be there when we look for it.

That doesn't mean that parental controls are forbidden by this order. If you're paying an ISP for internet service, ISPs are required to allow anything you want seen onto your computer. But the computer's owner reserves the right to block sites and certain kinds of traffic it finds objectionable. Much has been made in recent weeks, though, of providers offering free Wi-Fi or similar no-cost wireless service of blocking pornography sites. Since they're not charging for the connection, they can block whatever they choose to block, the same as paying internet customers can.

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