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Penn State prof explains FCC’s net neutrality decision

Penn State professor of telecommunications and Internet law Rob Frieden has written several books and more than 50 scholarly articles.
Penn State professor of telecommunications and Internet law Rob Frieden has written several books and more than 50 scholarly articles. CDT photo

Rob Frieden knows net. Internet, that is, and he wants people to care about the issue of net neutrality.

“We should care,” said the Penn State professor of telecommunications and Internet law.

But why? Sure, the Federal Communications Commission passed regulations Thursday protecting it, but what is it, really?

“Increasingly, the Internet is our one-stop shop,” Frieden said.

People use it for simple communication. Send an email to your boss. Let Grandma see pictures of the kids. Keep in touch with your best friend from college.

But people also use it to pay their bills, watch movies, play games, and do their jobs. A functioning Internet connection can help you do something as mundane as order a pizza or as significant as overthrowing a Middle Eastern government.

“Most people are tech agnostics,” Frieden said. “As long as they get a connection, they are happy. Block it and they are unhappy.”

But with Internet becoming more intrinsic to everyday life, the equity of it becomes more important.

“It’s about ensuring fair management practices,” said David Norloff, senior telecommunications lecturer at Penn State. “What’s being discussed is allowing fair and equitable access to content for it to be delivered to your home, or just delivered period really.”

That means that your Internet service provider can’t decide which content can come to you at what speed. All content, whether it is coming from Internet retail titan Amazon, a work-at-home mom’s photography studio or a local newspaper, has to have the same priority.

“Net neutrality tells the middlemen to play fair,” said Frieden.

There are First Amendment issues at work for some. The United Nations came out Friday calling the effort a “real victory” for freedom. However, Norloff said that it is really an issue people should care about as customers.

“What’s really critical for consumers is that you have the flexibility to choose, that Amazon Prime or Netflix has the same access,” he said.

But will the FCC’s decision be the final word on untangling Web access?

“There is certainly going to be an appeal,” Frieden said. The FCC has attempted similar regulation twice before but been overturned on appeal. This time, Frieden said, they reclassified broadband access as a telecommunication service like a utility as an effort to head off appeal issues.

The issue is also becoming more and more politicized.

“I think it’s important to be mindful of the fact that the chairman of the FCC is usually affiliated with the political party in power. It transcends political party. I challenge my class to think not as a political party, but as consumers or businesses. The sensationalism is leading people to conclude it’s a Democratic-Republican issue and there is some fear-mongering going on,” Norloff said.

Frieden agreed, saying that both parties should be pushing to make the system better.

“Fix it and everyone benefits,” he said.

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