What You Need To Know About Net Neutrality

Net neutrality. Like everything related to the internet, it's a relatively new concept. But what is net neutrality? And does it matter that the FCC repealed net neutrality in December 2017? If so, what are the forecasted effects of this repeal, as articulated by those both for and against net neutrality? 

At its most basic, net neutrality is the idea that the providers of internet services should treat all internet traffic equally. As such, providers should not filter or block consumer access to internet content, charge consumers more to reach certain websites, or charge companies for internet "fast lanes." Alternatively – according to opponents of the idea – net neutrality means burdensome government regulations that stifle investment and innovation. The 2017 net neutrality vote in front of the Federal Communications Commission was a party-line split, with Democrats in favor of net neutrality and Republicans opposed. 

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai has implied that net neutrality is a dangerous experiment that only dates back to 2015, but the concept's history is much longer. With the surge of net neutrality news before and in the wake of the December 2017 vote, it's time to look back at the history of net neutrality. 

  • What, Exactly, Is Net Neutrality?
    Photo: Camilo Sanchez / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    What, Exactly, Is Net Neutrality?

    If you aren't entirely sure what "net neutrality" means, you aren't alone. So what, exactly, is it? It's the idea that the telecommunications companies that provide internet access must treat all internet traffic equally. Or, put another way, it keeps internet service providers (ISPs) like Time Warner and Verizon from discriminating against content. They can't block or throttle certain websites or charge extra for "fast lane" content to load faster. According to the ACLU, a vocal proponent of net neutrality, it means that "the folks delivering [internet] content can't play favorites because they disagree with the message being delivered or want to charge more money for faster delivery."

    For over a decade, there has been an ongoing battle between Congress, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), and the courts over the legal status of net neutrality. And major players, including presidents, telecoms, and internet users, have been loud voices in the debate. So what does it mean that the FCC repealed net neutrality on December 14, 2017? Opponents and supporters see the move in very different terms.

  • The Major Players In The Net Neutrality Debate Are ISPs, Content Companies, And The Government
    Photo: Charles Vercauteren / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-3.0-migrated

    The Major Players In The Net Neutrality Debate Are ISPs, Content Companies, And The Government

    No one knows exactly how the December 2017 repeal of net neutrality will affect consumers, ISPs, and the internet. And net neutrality can be a complicated concept, especially for people who don't know an ISP from a VPN. The list of major net neutrality players starts with the ISPs, or internet service providers. ISPs give users access to the internet, typically for a monthly fee. This list includes cable companies like Comcast and Time Warner and wireless providers like Verizon and Sprint. For years, these telecoms have favored eliminating net neutrality rules.

    Content companies from Google and Netflix to the less-visited corners of the Internet rely on ISPs to transport their content. And users need an ISP to shop online, check Twitter, or stream videos. For their part, internet titans like Google and Netflix have supported net neutrality regulations.

    The third major player is the government, which has the power to regulate ISPs. The debate over net neutrality is really a debate over government regulation and what the internet even is. Does regulation protect consumers and content creators, or does it stifle innovation and corporate investment? Is the internet a public utility or a commodity that should be subject to the whims, demands, and constraints of the free market?

  • The Repeal Will Mean Faster, Better Access To The Internet, According To Some
    Photo: Federal Communications Commission / Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

    The Repeal Will Mean Faster, Better Access To The Internet, According To Some

    Opponents of net neutrality argue that government regulations discourage investments in infrastructure. Telecoms will be less likely to pay for fiber optic networks, for example, if net neutrality harms the profits of ISPs. Tech analyst Ben Thompson worries that net neutrality risks "chilling investment through prophylactic regulation and the elimination of price signals that may spur infrastructure build-out." In other words, without net neutrality, telecom profits will be higher, which will mean better service. 

    Some so-called "opponents" of net neutrality, like Thompson, aren't actually opponents of the concept at all – or so they claim. It's the particulars of the 2015 Obama legislation that they take exception to. According to Thompson, writing on his blog Stratechery,  "I am absolutely in favor of net neutrality... The question at hand, though, is what is the best way to achieve net neutrality? To believe that Chairman Pai is right is not to be against net neutrality; rather, it is to believe that the FCC’s 2015 approach was mistaken." In his post "PRO-NEUTRALITY, ANTI-TITLE II," Thompson goes on to argue that what he sees as the heavy handedness and lack of vision of the Obama administration's 2015 decision have forestalled innovation and created unforeseen issues in their attempt at treating the internet as a public utility. He sees little reason to interfere with or regulate a system that had gone unchecked for decades (according to his line of thinking) in a manner that could restrict unknown futures for the internet. Thompson and others like him also believe that small ISPs don't stand a chance of succeeding under the current system, and that large, established ISPs have every incentive to support regulations because they give them continued control of the market.

    For his part, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai promises the 2017 repeal will be good for consumers: “We are helping consumers and promoting competition. Broadband providers will have more incentive to build networks, especially to underserved areas.” But supporters of net neutrality disagree.

  • Others Ask If Consumers Will Face Shake-Downs From ISPs And Wonder If Internet Will Be The New Cable
    Photo: Credo Action / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-2.0

    Others Ask If Consumers Will Face Shake-Downs From ISPs And Wonder If Internet Will Be The New Cable

    Consumers already hate their internet service providers. In fact, according to a 2017 survey by the American Customer Satisfaction Survey, of the 43 industries they asked about, ISPs tied for last place in customer satisfaction. And the repeal of net neutrality could make things even worse – this is the major argument of proponents of net neutrality. As Anna G. Eshoo, the Congresswoman representing Silicon Valley argued in a December 2017 USA Today opinion piece, the new rules mean that ISPs could charge consumers even more to access certain content. Just like consumers have to pay extra for premium cable channels, in the future, ISPs could potentially charge an extra $4.99 for the "Twitter-Facebook" package in one hypothetical scenario. Or maybe consumers will have to cough up an extra $9.99 to stream videos. 

    The same could happen on the other end: ISPs could increasingly charge content generators fees to get fast speeds. In fact, it's already happening under the name "peering connections," where massive content generators like Google, Facebook, and Netflix pair with ISPs to have dedicated computer servers to ensure strong connections. 

    In a post-net neutrality era, a major concern is that ISPs will prioritize paid content over everything else. That could make it much harder for small companies to reach consumers – and for consumers to access content not produced by major corporations.

  • Another Major Argument For Net Neutrality Is That It Protects Free Speech, Which Is Why The UN Declared Internet Access A Human Right In 2011
    Photo: United Nations / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Another Major Argument For Net Neutrality Is That It Protects Free Speech, Which Is Why The UN Declared Internet Access A Human Right In 2011

    Proponents of net neutrality, like the ACLU, argue that the government regulations that keep the internet open and free to all have an inestimable benefit: the protection of free speech. In 2011, a United Nations report said that removing internet access is a human rights violation. The report was specifically aimed at governments that cut off internet access, particularly for political dissidents. The argument linked internet access to freedom of speech, since the internet is a major avenue for expression.

    In 2016, the UN strengthened the claim by adding internet access to Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. While the UN's declaration doesn't specifically apply to net neutrality, organizations like Human Rights Watch have argued that repealing net neutrality will limit people's freedom of expression and access to information.

  • Fast Lanes And Tolls On The Internet Could Hurt Small Businesses And Consumers

    We're all familiar with fast lanes and tolls on highways – but what does it mean for the internet? Supporters of net neutrality argue that the repeal will make it harder for small businesses, startups, and consumers to have their voices heard on the internet. The reason: telecoms can now charge companies extra to receive premium speeds and high quality service.

    In the new post-net neutrality world, this means companies can pay extra for faster speeds. This is often called "paid prioritization," and it means that corporations could pay ISPs so that their content gets prioritized. In November of 2017, Comcast, the largest home internet provider in the US, dropped paid prioritization from their pledge not to throttle, block, or create fast lanes. Many read this as a hint that Comcast might be open to creating fast lanes and tolls for the companies that can afford it.