In a rather dramatic development, President Obama today announced that he wants the FCC to reclassify internet service providers as telecommunications services. This is a huge deal for network neutrality advocates.
To understand the debate, we have to go back to 1996, the year Congress last overhauled telecommunications law. In that year, Congress established two legal categories:
- Telecommunications services are services such as a traditional phone line that are considered common carriers. The law imposes a wide variety of legal obligations on telecommunications services and gives the FCC broad discretion to regulate them.
- Information services are services that allow people to store, process, and publish information online — like old-school AOL, or modern services like YouTube or Facebook. These services are exempt from most FCC regulations.
Since 1996, there's been a fight over how to classify broadband services offered by incumbents such as Comcast and Verizon. Many open internet activists have argued that the law requires them to be treated as telecommunications services. But in a 2005 case, the Supreme Court ruled that the FCC could classify them as information services if they wanted to. That's what the FCC has done ever since.
That decision came back to haunt the agency earlier this year. The US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit ruled that because the FCC had previously classified broadband as a low-regulation "information service," it could not impose strong network neutrality regulations on them.
The FCC could officially change its mind and declare broadband a telecommunications service. That would give the agency the power to enact strong network neutrality regulations. And that's what Obama is asking them to do. So even though the question of classification status sounds incredibly dull and obscure, it's really a huge deal.