Net neutrality rules are coming. Here's why they matter.

A new set of FCC rules would make net neutrality an enforceable reality, rather than just a set of principles. But Verizon and other providers think the FCC has overstepped its bounds.

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    The same month that the FCC debuted its rules on net neutrality (which will go into effect on November 10), the commission appointed David Robbins, pictured, as its managing director.
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Net neutrality is finally real, or at least will be in a few months. The new rules for Internet companies will be put into place on November 20 – unless they get derailed by lawsuits. The guidelines, written by the US Federal Communications Commission, say essentially this: Internet providers can’t deliberately block or slow speeds for “heavy” Internet users, such as people who stream movies or play online games, nor throttle traffic from a certain source, such as from competitors or peer-to-peer downloads.

The rules might get delayed or prevented, though, by lawsuits that Internet providers have brought against the FCC. The legal contention stems from the basic argument against net neutrality: companies such as Verizon and AT&T say they ought to be able to charge more from consumers who use more data. They worry that heavy data consumption – such as streaming movies or downloading music – slows down the online experience of other users, forcing providers to spend more on infrastructure.

On the flip side, consumer advocacy groups and other net neutrality proponents argue that the Internet should be freely accessible to everyone, and that artificially throttled speed, fines for heavy downloading, and other usage penalties stifle innovation and creativity. The Internet should be a “neutral” playing field for all, goes this line of reasoning.

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The net neutrality rules set to take effect in November strike a balance between these two arguments. They generally allow providers to ration access to their networks, but prevent them from blocking or discriminating against content that competes with their own services. The FCC would be able to fine Internet companies that slow down service for “heavy use” customers.

How does this affect you?

Well, the rules are slightly different for fixed and mobile networks. Providers of fixed broadband can’t block lawful content or services, or discriminate any network traffic. That means they can’t deliberately slow down traffic for heavy Internet users. Mobile networks can still discriminate against certain apps, but can’t block lawful websites or block applications that compete with their own services. And the new rules call for greater transparency from both fixed and mobile providers: the FCC says all broadband providers have to “disclose the network management practices, performance characteristics, and commercial terms of their broadband services.”

Once the new rules are made public, however – they’ll be published in the Federal Register on Friday – they’ll be vulnerable to legal action. Verizon and MetroPCS have each already tried a lawsuit: they sued the FCC shortly after the rules were passed in late December, arguing that the government had overstepped its bounds in setting these regulations. Those lawsuits were put on hold, but once the rules are public they can resume again, along with additional challenges. It may fall to a federal judge to determine the legality of net neutrality.

Readers, what’s your take? Do these rules protect customers, or do they take too much power away Internet providers? Let us know what you’re thinking in the comments.

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