Jul 23, 2014 · 2 minutes

The Federal Communications Commission has issued a statement reminding Internet service providers like Comcast and Verizon that they can't lie about the speed of a consumer's service. The statement doesn't establish a new rule -- rather, it reminds ISPs that the agency is paying attention to their activities even as it lets them undermine the principles of an open Internet.

Here's what chairman Tom Wheeler, whose proposed net neutrality rules led the Guardian to claim that he intends to "axe-murder net neutrality," said in a portion of the statement:

Consumers deserve to get the broadband service they pay for. After today, no broadband provider can claim they didn’t know we were watching to see that they disclose accurate information about the services they provide. The FCC’s transparency rule requires that consumers get the information they need to make informed choices about the broadband services they purchase. We expect providers to be fully transparent about the details of their services, and we will hold them accountable if they fall down on this obligation to consumers.
Gigaom's Stacey Higginbotham explains the problems with Wheeler's claim in a blog post:
While the rule does say that ISPs must provide the details of their network management plans, I’m not sure the FCC could successfully say actions like Verizon not providing enough open ports onto its network would qualify as a problem. However, concerns about poorly worded service offers or inaccurate counts of data against a data cap would certainly apply, as would blocking or slowing certain types of traffic without explaining that to the consumer.

Of course, in many areas of the country, even if an ISP were to stand up and say, “I am blocking Netflix and my data cap measurements are a bit off,” consumers don’t have much choice in switching providers. Higginbotham is right about most consumers not having many options in their choice of ISP. As I wrote in a post comparing the performance of Time Warner Cable and a DSL connection offered by the regional Finger Lakes Technologies Group, which are the only options for people who live in the middle of nowhere like I do, the United States' Internet infrastructure is awful:

This is a problem all across the country. Many people have access to just a handful of ISPs, many of which are regional offerings that pale in comparison to their national counterparts, which enjoy a monopoly on the high-end service market in many of the places they operate. That’s why the proposed merger between Comcast and TWC is so worrisome: if they are able to become one company, it will be given uncontested control over high-end Internet services.

That won’t just affect people living in towns where tractors and buggies are seen more often than bicycles and buses. It will affect everyone hoping the US’ Internet infrastructure might improve to match the rest of the developed world’s, and it won’t be for the better. But hey, at least the FCC is looking out to make sure ISPs are maybe, sometimes, kind of providing the Internet connections they promised to consumers when they convinced them to use their service instead of... well, instead of not connecting to the Internet at all. It's not like the agency is already struggling to respond to many of the problems the open Internet faces.

[illustration by Brad Jonas]