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Net neutrality: What it is and why we’re talking about it again

Net neutrality: What it is and why we’re talking about it again
Net neutrality

Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Back in 2017, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) under President Donald Trump’s hand-picked Chair Ajit Pai, a former Verizon in-house lawyer, dumped net neutrality. Now the FCC is back up to its full five-member quorum and current FCC Chair Jessica Rosenworcel has announced the FCC will restore net neutrality

Net neutrality is the principle that all internet traffic should be treated equally, without any discrimination. This approach means that internet service providers (ISPs) should not be allowed to speed up, slow down, or block access to specific websites or online services. It’s a principle that ensures the internet remains a level playing field for everyone.

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Net neutrality was a vital component in how the internet worked for decades. Indeed, the basic concept of all ISPs sharing bandwidth equally and equitably dates back to the Commercial Internet eXchange, which represents the birth of the internet that you know and use today. 

Without network neutrality, instead of the universal internet we use every day, we would have been stuck with isolated islands of connectivity, such as the online services of the 1980s and 1990s, including AOL, CompuServe, and Prodigy. We’d have no Amazon, Netflix, Facebook, or Google. We might not even have the Web. Most of us are no more aware of this fact today than a fish is of the water in which it swims, but it didn’t have to be this way.

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In 2015, the internet was formally regulated for a brief period via net neutrality in the United States. Under the FCC ruling at the time, the internet was governed by three principles:

No Blocking: Broadband providers may not block access to legal content, applications, services, or non-harmful devices.

No Throttling: Broadband providers may not impair or degrade lawful internet traffic because of content, applications, services, or non-harmful devices.

No Paid Prioritization: Broadband providers may not favor some lawful internet traffic over other lawful traffic in exchange for consideration — in other words, no “fast lanes”.

This final rule also bans ISPs from prioritizing their affiliates’ content and services. If this set of principles all sounds too abstract, then think of the internet as a highway where all cars, regardless of their make or model, are under the same speed limit. 

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Now, picture a scenario where Teslas are given a special lane where they can speed, while other cars are stuck in slow-moving traffic. This is what the internet is like without net neutrality, with ISPs giving preferential treatment to certain websites or services, thereby stifling competition and innovation.

So, why does it matter? As Tim Berners-Lee said when net neutrality was repealed: “When I invented the World Wide Web in 1989, I didn’t have to pay a fee or ask anyone for permission to make it available over the internet. All I had to do was write a new app and plug my computer into the net.” 

FCC chair Rosenworcel agreed: “The internet needs to be open, I have always supported net neutrality.”

She continued: “In the wake of the pandemic and the generational investment in internet access, we have a window to update our policies to ensure that the internet is not only open but fast and fair, safe and secure. I am committed to seizing this opportunity. Now is the time for our rules of the road for internet service providers to reflect the reality that internet access is a necessity for daily life. Let’s get to it.” 

Specifically, the new proposal for net neutrality would reclassify both fixed and mobile broadband as essential communications services under Title II of the Communications Act of 1934. Other essential services include water, power, and phone services. I think we can all agree that the internet is an essential service today. And if this proposal sounds familiar, it should — it’s a restatement of President Barack Obama’s net neutrality position.  

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Some opponents would say that repealing net neutrality didn’t lead to change. In answer, Rosenworcel said that’s because certain states, in particular California, stepped up with their own net neutrality rules. While that establishment of principles is all well and good, she wants to see state regulations replaced by a single federal set of national rules. 

To those who say that the FCC is just opening the door to price regulation, Rosenworcel said this is not the case. She believes net neutrality will lead to more competition, which in turn will bring down internet broadband prices. 

The new regulations Rosenworcel suggests go beyond net neutrality, and she proposes changes to:

Security: Reclassify broadband internet access to give the FCC and its national security partners the tools needed to defend our networks from potential security threats

Safety: Allow the FCC to enhance the resiliency of broadband networks and bolster efforts to require providers to notify the FCC and consumers of internet outages

Nationwide Standard: Establish a uniform national standard rather than a patchwork of state-by-state approaches, benefiting consumers and ISPs

Even before the announcement was made, as everything now seems to in the US, net neutrality became a political issue. On one side, Democratic Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts wrote on X (formerly Twitter) that the FCC must “restore its rightful authority over broadband regulation and reinstate net neutrality protections.” 

On the Republican side, FCC member Brendan Carr claims — based on a telecommunication company paid-for study — that the decision to reclassify broadband as a Title II telecommunications service will not survive a Supreme Court encounter with the major questions doctrine: “It would be folly for the Commission and Congress to assume otherwise.” He also claims that the revived regulations would give the FCC too much power. 

Rosenworcel concluded that the FCC will take an initial vote on October 19 on the new net neutrality proposal, which will largely aim to reinstate 2015’s open internet rules. Then, the agency will take public comments on the proposal. After that, the FCC will vote on adopting final rules. In other words, it will be months, if not years, before any new regulations are put into effect. 

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