You go online expecting to access your favorite sites and services. As long as you have an internet connection, you’re free to go where you please. That’s the beauty of the web. But what if your internet service provider got to decide which sites and services load and which don’t? Without net neutrality—the idea that everyone’s data should be treated equally—we may be headed in this direction.
Net neutrality in the US has changed significantly in recent years, and it’s expected to remain an important issue in the near future. Yet only about 45 percent of Americans know what it is. Here’s a quick look at what net neutrality means and where it stands in the US.
What’s net neutrality?
Net neutrality is the idea that internet service providers (ISPs), like AT&T or Verizon, should treat all data that travels over their networks equally, whether that’s a bank transfer, an email, or a streamed movie. Net neutrality ensures a free and open internet, where users are unfettered by corporate gatekeepers.
This means ISPs shouldn’t be able to slide certain apps, sites, or services into fast lanes while slowing down or blocking others. Nor should they be allowed to charge more for certain services, like higher-quality delivery. A neutral network treats traffic equally. Everyone gets the same access, and at the same speed, regardless of what they’re doing.
Net neutrality laws classify the internet as a public utility. Imagine that your data is water, that the internet is your city’s water supply system, and that your ISP owns the water pipes. In theory, these pipes bring a steady and indiscriminate supply of water to every household in your city.
Net neutrality advocates argue the same should apply to the web. Data transmitted over the internet is divided into segments called packets. Think of these as literal data packages. On a neutral network, all packages are delivered at the same rate, no matter where they’re going or what they’re for.
In 2015, the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) put in place new rules to ensure this was the case. These regulations considered broadband services utilities, giving the FCC power over ISPs. They prohibited the following practices:
- Blocking. Discriminating against lawful content by blocking apps, websites, or services.
- Throttling. Slowing data transmission based on the nature of the content.
- Paid prioritization. Creating an internet fast lane for those who pay premiums.
Why is net neutrality necessary?
Proponents of net neutrality say that without regulations, ISPs have an outsized say over what succeeds online and what doesn’t; they can charge users extra to visit certain sites, demand fees from sites for full speed delivery, or privilege their sites over those of competitors.
“All of us expect that our right to drive on a road is the same as that of our neighbors,” says Sridhar Ramaswamy, cofounder of Neeva. “Net neutrality is the same thing: that all traffic is treated equally regardless of who is sending it or requesting it. It is a basic and important concept on the internet.”
Advocates argue that neutrality promotes competition, and is essential for innovation, fairness, and free expression on the internet.
- Innovation. Since the beginning, advocates have argued that keeping the internet an open playing field is crucial for innovation. In 2003, Tim Wu, who coined the term ‘net neutrality,’ argued that regulation was necessary to preserve the internet’s equal-opportunity design. New companies and technologies are more likely to enter the market if ISPs are barred from picking favorites and competition remains meritocratic. Had ISPs blocked or limited video streaming in the mid-2000s, we might not have seen the rise of services like YouTube or Netflix.
- Fairness. Net neutrality laws prevent paid prioritization. Otherwise, ISPs can charge individuals and companies for preferential treatment on their networks, dividing the internet into haves and have-nots. Some fear the effects paid prioritization can have on small businesses and startups who rely on the internet to operate. Most Americans have very few options when it comes to choosing an ISP, sometimes only one or two. In countries without strong rules, ISPs offer free data on certain apps or sell data in app bundles, similar to how cable TV is sold.
- Free expression. Net neutrality promotes the free flow of ideas. A handful of ISPs dominating the broadband market would give them the power to suppress certain views and limit online speech to those who can afford it, allowing them to manipulate the flow of information in our society. Without net neutrality, your telecommunications service could block your ability to freely post content to the web, a step backwards for democracy and public discourse.
More recently, the coronavirus pandemic has forced many of us to work and learn online. More than ever, we rely on the internet. Proponents of net neutrality see it as an indispensable utility and stress that it should be regulated accordingly. People should be free to choose their video conferencing tools, for example, and IPSs shouldn’t sell priority access to more affluent customers.
Opponents of net neutrality, including telecom companies, hardware manufacturers, and conservative think tanks, argue that regulation discourages investment in network infrastructure and disincentivizes innovation. They say tiered internet pricing generates the money needed to expand broadband networks, such as the cost of laying fiber optic wire. Opponents also point out that prior to the recent net neutrality rules ISPs hadn’t engaged in the practices the rules prohibit, and that without these rules, the internet returns to an earlier, pre-network-neutrality regulatory era. For now, at least on a national level, these arguments have succeeded.
A brief history of the net neutrality law
For more than two decades, the US has been stuck in a loop of laws and repealed laws around net neutrality, one of the more knotty policy battles of the digital age. Here’s the general timeline of what’s happened to date:
- 2003. Seeing the signs of impending corporate control over the growing internet, Columbia University law professor Tim Wu writes his breakout paper, “Network Neutrality, Broadband Discrimination,” in which he coins the term and the idea of net neutrality. Worried that ISPs’ tendency to restrict new technologies will hurt innovation, Wu calls for anti-discrimination rules.
- 2005. The Bush-era FCC releases a policy statement prohibiting ISPs from blocking legal content or preventing customers from connecting devices of their choosing to the internet. In one of the first efforts to enforce net neutrality, the FCC fines a North Carolina ISP for blocking Vonage, an internet phone service.
- 2008. The FCC orders Comcast to stop throttling connections that use the peer-to-peer file-sharing software, BitTorrent. Comcast sues the FCC and a federal court rules that the FCC lacked the authority to enforce the 2005 policy statement.
- 2010. The Barack Obama-era FCC passes the Open Internet order, a more detailed net neutrality order, which it hopes will withstand legal scrutiny. However, the order has many legal and practical holes.
- 2014. Following a legal challenge from Verizon, a federal court rules that the FCC doesn’t have the authority to impose net neutrality regulations on services that aren’t considered common carriers under Title II of the Communications Act, like landline phone companies. Fearing internet fast lanes, millions of people file comments to the agency to express their support for net neutrality. FCC chairman Tom Wheeler decides to reclassify ISPs as Title II carriers.
- 2015. Following intense public activism and scrutiny, the FCC passes the Open Internet Order, a sweeping net neutrality law, preventing ISPs from speeding up or slowing down web traffic, effectively making the internet a public utility. In response, telecom companies sue the agency, but a federal court finds that the new rules are legal.
- 2017. Shortly after President Donald Trump is inaugurated, he appoints Ajit Pai as the FCC’s chairman. Arguing that the 2015 regulations prevent ISPs from investing fully in their networks, Pai forces a vote in December 2017 to reverse the order and leaves the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to oversee the issue. Many net neutrality violations are legal under antitrust fair-competition laws, which the FTC oversees.
- 2018. Washington governor Jay Inslee signs the country’s first state law to protect net neutrality. Other states soon follow.
- 2019. A federal appeals court upholds the FCC’s decision to end net neutrality, but rules that the agency can’t override state-level laws.
- 2021. California enacts its own net neutrality law, which goes further than the FCC’s 2015 order by also banning forms of ‘zero rating’, i.e. when an ISP exempts certain services from counting against a user’s data cap.
What’s next for net neutrality
ISPs taking advantage. After net neutrality was repealed in 2017, many ISPs pledged that even in the absence of regulation they wouldn’t interfere with web traffic. Despite these assurances, ISPs have taken advantage of their new freedom.
In 2019, a study found that the four largest US wireless carriers were throttling mobile video content even when their networks weren’t overloaded. AT&T, for example, lets customers watch its video service without having it count against their data plan, whereas watching Netflix or Hulu still counts.
Telecom industry advocates, on the other hand, say that net neutrality supporters’ worst predictions—a slow and patchy web—never materialized, and that policymakers should focus on expanding internet access rather than restarting a “divisive” and “outdated battle.”
More new laws. The future of net neutrality in the US depends on Congress, the courts, and state laws. In 2019, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit opened the possibility of restoring the 2015 Open Internet Order under a future FCC, and rejected the FCC’s attempt to prevent states from passing their own net neutrality laws. So far seven states have adopted rules, and several others have introduced some form of legislation. The FCC might also push for a consistent set of national rules that preempt the patchwork of state laws, something both net neutrality advocates and ISPs may prefer.
A new FCC administration. When President Biden was elected, Ajit Pai stepped down as FCC chairman. Net neutrality is expected to be relitigated under the new leadership of acting chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel, who criticized the FCC for failing to heed public outcry over the 2017 repeal of the Open Internet Order. Net neutrality advocates plan to press the issue and push the now-powerful Democrats, including President Biden, to act as soon as possible.
Big Tech, the bigger fish. ISPs aren’t the only gatekeepers of the internet. Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google—collectively known as Big Tech—already control much of the infrastructure online, including app stores, operating systems, cloud storage, and most of the online ad business. In many ways, they’ve already cemented their dominance. Big tech companies stand little risk of being blocked or throttled. Doing so makes the ISP look bad, whereas slowing down traffic to a small start-up makes the startup look bad. Without net neutrality, big tech companies could continue to easily outmaneuver small competitors, and tighten their grip on the web.
The internet wasn’t conceived as a corporate free-for-all. Nor has it always been. A free and open internet, easily accessible to all of its users, depends on net neutrality. And as its brief history shows, net neutrality depends on public awareness and support. Another path is still within reach.
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