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Net Neutrality Is Here, and 75% of Americans Don't Know What It Is

By Daniel B. Kline – Feb 28, 2015 at 8:22AM

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The FCC has approved a controversial proposal to regulate ISPs as utilities, but the battle is just beginning.

The Federal Communications Commission has passed new rules that establish net neutrality by reclassifying broadband Internet providers as utilities or common carriers under Title II of the Telecommunications Act of 1934. The proposal, which passed on a 3-2 part line vote (with the Democrats supporting the move), will prevent blocking, throttling, and paid prioritization of content on the Internet.

It's a landmark ruling likely to lead to lawsuits from a number of large ISPs, and perhaps action from the Republican-controlled Congress to overturn the rules. 

"While some other countries try to control the Internet, the action that we take today is an irrefutable reflection of the principle that no one, whether government or corporate, should control free and open access to the Internet," FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said in remarks ahead of today's vote, GeekWire reported.

This is big news, and a major step toward guaranteeing that the Internet remains free and open to all, but the majority of Americans still don't know what just happened.

Survey says
Despite the uproar, media coverage, and even a celebrated piece from John Oliver on HBO's Last Week Tonight, a new survey shows that 75% of Americans do not know what net neutrality is.

The survey conducted by Hart Research Associates for the Progressive Policy Institute showed most Americans are unfamiliar with the term "net neutrality," want greater disclosure of the details of the FCC's proposal to regulate the Internet, and think that the government regulating the Internet like a public utility will not be helpful.

The survey was conducted by telephone (both landline and cell phone) among a cross section of 800 adults age 18 and over. It found:

  • Three out of four (75%) Americans are unfamiliar with the term "net neutrality" and what it refers to.
  • 73% of Americans want greater disclosure of the details of the FCC's proposal to regulate the Internet.
  • Nearly eight in 10 (79%) Americans favor public disclosure of the exact wording and details of the FCC's proposal to regulate the Internet before the FCC votes on it.
  • Only one in three Americans thinks regulating the Internet like telephone service will be helpful.

"The public neither understands nor supports the FCC voting on net neutrality rules without greater disclosure of the exact wording and the details of the proposal," said Peter Hart, Founder of Hart Research Associates"Net neutrality is near net zero understanding: just one in four Americans knows what the term refers to, and just one in 10 Americans has positive feelings about it.'"

The survey, while perhaps politically biased (since Hart certainly seems dead-set against the FCC's now-adopted proposal) does show something important -- Americans don't understand what net neutrality is even though it affects them in numerous ways.

Source: YouTube.

What's next? 
The American people will certainly get a chance to learn about net neutrality if they choose to, as the FCC passing its proposal is really just setting the ground rules for the coming war rather than ending it. While Congressional action is possible, a recent statement by Republican Senator John Thune to The New York Times suggests that angle is not the most likely.

"We're not going to get a signed bill that doesn't have Democrats' support," said Thune, who has been leading the efforts against the FCC plan. "This is an issue that needs to have bipartisan support."

That doesn't entirely rule out action, but it shows that Republicans understand that they may have a majority in both houses, but they lack the votes to overturn an inevitable presidential veto. 

The affected ISPs are not likely to sit on the sidelines, and lawsuits seem inevitable.

In a statement reported by Re/Code, Verizon (VZ 0.59%) called the FCC's move a "radical step that presages a time of uncertainty for consumers, innovators and investors" and "as a result, it is likely that history will judge today's actions as misguided." 

Those statements were echoed by former FCC chair and current National Cable & Telecommunications Association chief Michael Powell, who said the FCC has "breathed new life into the decayed telephone regulatory model," the tech news site reported, which will mean "new taxes and increased costs" for consumers, who will "likely wait longer for faster and more innovative networks since investment will slow in the face of bureaucratic oversight."

A fight is coming
It's not just the affected industry that opposed using Title II to regulate ISPs.

Gary Shapiro, president and CEO of the Consumer Electronics Association, also issued a statement via email immediately after the FCC ruling: 

Today's vote by the FCC reclassifying broadband as a Title II public utility service takes us in the wrong direction on the information superhighway. CEA supports a light regulatory regime that strikes the appropriate balance among fostering innovation, promoting competition and maintaining broad access to and across the Internet. With this vote, the Commission has instead placed regulatory shackles and new legal risks on the Internet and those who use this technological marvel to create critical new services, products and jobs. The end result for consumers: less choice, higher costs and reduced innovation.

Shapiro would have preferred Congressional action to guarantee and open Internet, but his stance shows how controversial what the FCC has done is and will continue to be. This decision does deliver net neutrality, but it's a fragile open Internet that will be challenged in court almost certainly.

The FCC still has to release the roughly 300-page plan before anyone -- friend or foe of it -- actually knows what it contains. Once that happens, the survey above suggests most Americans won't read it (or even glance at a summary of it), but that could be a mistake, as the FCC, Congress, and the ISPs themselves are fighting to determine how the Internet will work for years to come.

Daniel Kline has no position in any stocks mentioned. He thinks Last Week Tonight is one of the funnier shows on television. The Motley Fool recommends Verizon Communications. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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