by Matthew L. Schafer
On December 23, Pew Internet released a report that went largely unnoticed (according to Google, it only received about twenty-six mentions) as it was outshined by the FCC’s new net neutrality rules released the same day. The Pew report comes as the FCC refused to provide net neutrality protections for mobile broadband and highlights the need for real net neutrality protections for Internet users on the go.
In the report, “Politics Goes Mobile,” the data show that 26% of American adults depended on their cell phones for Internet access to election coverage in 2010. The numbers were especially high for the Black population, where 36% of Blacks used cell phones to engage in politics, and the 18-29 year-old demographic, where 39% went mobile for election news.
These numbers show a trend where more and more Americans are consuming news online. Moreover, a report released by Pew Internet last July showed that about 40% of Americans used mobile broadband to browse the web–up from 32% from 2009. Indeed, the ‘Net is mobile, and it appears that adults are relying on the mobile Internet more and more.
“Mobile connectivity has become a growing feature in all kinds of communication and information exchanges—including politics—and mobile connectivity is becoming a regular feature of political campaigns,” Director Lee Raine wrote in the Pew report.
Despite the growth in mobile Internet use, the FCC failed to pass strong net neutrality rules to prevent wireless providers like T-Mobile and AT&T from meddling with Internet traffic. While many have contested that net neutrality protections are a solution in search of a problem, wireless providers have already been caught blocking certain content. The FCC net neutrality Order cited five separate incidences of blocking, including providers blocking Skype and Slingbox. (Wireless providers have also been caught blocking lawful text messages.)
While the FCC order argues that “there is one Internet, which should remain open for consumers and innovators alike, although it may be accessed through different technologies and services,” the FCC went on to divide the Internet into fixed and mobile, giving greater protections to fixed broadband than to mobile broadband.
For example, the FCC put in place weak rules preventing both blocking and discrimination across fixed broadband. For mobile, on the other hand, it only put in place a weak rule against blocking content, allowing wireless providers to choose which traffic goes fast and which does not. Moreover, the “no blocking” rule on mobile broadband is subject to “reasonable network management,” which gives providers an excuse when caught blocking or discriminating against certain traffic.
Commissioner Robert McDowell, who voted against the Order, argued that injecting the word “reasonable” into the rules could result in over-policing by the FCC. Additionally, Commissioner Michael Copps noted, in his concurrence, that there should be a more distinct rule than “reasonable network management.”
“I had other areas of concern about something less than a bright-line nondiscrimination rule, keeping ‘reasonable network management’ within bounds, and the substitution of monitoring for the certainty of enforcement in too many areas,” Copps wrote.
In addition to the absence of a rule preventing discrimination and despite the protestations of FCC commissioners, wireless providers now have free reign to block whatever traffic they see fit, if the discrimination is shown to be “reasonable network management.” This, unfortunately, leaves mobile broadband even more unprotected than fixed broadband.
As more Americans use mobile Internet, and wireless providers own companies in competition with third parties, it is becoming increasingly necessary that the FCC put in place strong net neutrality protections to protect users. Indeed, even after the recent rule passage, there is still no rule preventing a wireless provider from freezing out its competition’s content in order to favor its own.