The U.S. Federal Communications Commission, or FCC, passed controversial new rules this week that it says seek to guarantee the openness and freedom of the Internet and protect consumers. Industry experts and advocates say that while the regulations did lay down some basic rules of the road that regulate Internet service providers, it is unclear whether those regulations will stick or gain widespread approval.
In approving a set of regulations for the Internet this week, the FCC was trying to provide an answer to a heatedly debated question: Do we need rules to guarantee that the Internet remain free and open or do we just let it be and trust that it will continue to thrive?
The FCC voted in favor of rules.
"Everybody does know one thing. They want access to the Internet. They want it to be fast. They want it to be affective. They want it to be exciting and interesting and content rich. That's the only thing we have agreement upon," said Lance Ulanoff, editor-in-chief of PCmag.com.
"Everything else after that is up in the air. How do we get to that? Who should be providing it (Internet service). What should I be charged? How should I be charged? Who sets those rates? What's a fair rate? Is Internet access a basic human right now? These are all things that are in contention. And I can tell you that it is my sense that the FCC's order probably doesn't answer most of these questions," he said.
Cable companies and Internet service providers such as Comcast, Verizon Communications and AT&T expressed concern with the FCC's rules. Verizon said it was "deeply concerned" and AT&T said the plan was "not ideal."
Republican lawmakers have pledged to fight the FCC's rules. Other battles over the regulations are expected to play out in the courts as well.
Ulanoff says the regulations do give consumers a basic general platform to voice discontent - what happens from that point is another matter. "But understand that the minute that first step is taken it won't be as simple as the ISP (Internet Service Provider) going, 'You're right. We're sorry. We made a mistake.' They may say we are well within our rights. We consider this protecting our network and we are going to fight. So expect a lot of fights," Ulanoff said.
The new rules prohibit Internet providers such as telephone and cable companies from discriminating against Internet services, such as those that come from their rivals. But the new rules give broadband providers flexibility to exercise what the FCC calls "reasonable management" of data to deal with problems of network congestion and unwanted traffic, including junk emails.
The fight over "net neutrality" began picking up several years ago when Comcast blocked some of its networks that were transmitting larger files with high-definition content. The FCC ordered Comcast to stop, but earlier this year, a U.S. appeals court ruled the body lacked the authority to do so.
David Sohn of the Center for Democracy and Technology in Washington, D.C. says the Comcast ruling in April created a vacuum, and the FCC's approval of the new rules this week was in part a response to that court decision.
"In the wake of that decision in particular, it appears that there are no safeguards for the open and neutral character of the Internet. Which means any time a carrier decides to engage in practices that might undermine that, there is no legal backstop, there is no cop on the beat," Sohn said.
It is unclear whether the new rules will stick and advocates say the true test will be how they are implemented and interpreted over time.
Sohn says that at the least, the debate over "net neutrality" has already benefited Internet consumers and prevented discriminatory practices.