Faculty Weigh In FCC’s Ruling To Classify Internet as Telecommunications

Following the Federal Communication Commission's decision to classify the internet as a telecommunications service, thereby allowing the government to regulate it as a utility, Harvard professors praised the ruling considered a victory for net neutrality proponents.

FCC Chairman Thomas E. Wheeler announced last Thursday that the independent body voted 3-2 in favor of net neutrality, which would prohibit internet service providers from differentiating the speed and quality of the service according to their customers’ ability to pay.

Several Harvard faculty members and other affiliates said the ruling largely benefited consumers and their access to the internet.

“Over the long term, these actions may help to ensure that there will be choices for connectivity, and that when you're connected, you don't see that access being cajoled in one direction or another depending on the ISPs' business deals,” wrote Jonathan L. Zittrain, faculty director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, in an email.

Roger G. Zou ’17, president of the Harvard Computer Society, said that the ruling would enable start-ups to “make huge plays in the market” and deliver their products via the internet.

“We think that it will allow a good product to stand on its own,” Zou added.

However, other professors raised concerns that the decision could potentially decrease internet service providers’ profits and discourage them from building internet infrastructure.

“The United States is not exactly a global leader in providing high speed internet to the entire country. We’re kind of a lagger, actually,” Matthew A. Baum, a Kennedy School professor of global communications, said. “[This ruling] could make us, in one respect, possibly more of a lagger.”

At the same time, Alex S. Jones, Director of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy, noted that internet service providers were not expanding infrastructure prior to the ruling.

“Have you ever asked yourself why, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, we don’t have FIOS? FIOS is Verizon’s top of the line cable access,” Jones said. “We don’t have it because they don’t want to spend the money to run the cable...Saying that they’re going to be hampered in doing [infrastructure] is moot because they’re not doing it anyway.”  

Beyond the decision’s positive impact on consumers, faculty members marked the political significance that the decision came into fruition. Yochai Benkler, Berkman Center faculty co-director and Law School professor, acknowledged that successful grassroots movements put pressure on legislators.

“[The ruling is] a moment that can give us hope that even in the presence of enormous amounts of money in politics and one of the worst revolving door environments in Washington, people can still organize themselves to force politicians to do the right thing,” Benkler wrote in an email.

Although supportive of the new regulations, several professors noted that they could be overturned by future administrations.

“The FCC has become pretty politicized. Right now you have a Democratic appointee in charge. That could change with the next president,” Baum said. “The politics of this are still very uncertain.”

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