Net Neutrality Explained

Updated August 5, 2020 | Infoplease Staff

The history and controversy surrounding net neutrality

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Social media sites and news commentators speculated furiously about the future of the Internet after the Federal Communications Commission proposed sweeping changes to net neutrality in May 2014. The issue made headlines again in November 2014 when President Barack Obama called on the FCC to preserve net neutrality. The FCC put that speculation to rest in February 2015, when it voted 3–2 to regulate Internet service as a telecommunications service, and thus subject to strict government regulation.

Here's a look at the history of net neutrality and an explanation of why pundits such as John Oliver became so passionate about a policy that for years had been a back-burner issue.

Open Internet Order

Net neutrality dictates that broadband Internet service providers (ISPs), cable and phone companies such as Comcast and Verizon, treat all content on the web the same. It was established under the FCC's Open Internet Order, which was adopted in 2010. The order says that broadband providers must be transparent about how their networks perform and are managed; they cannot block content or applications as long as they are legal; and they cannot discriminate against content providers or services by relegating them to a "slow lane." Essentially, the order says ISPs can't deliver programming from Company A faster than that of Company B. Nor can they charge more for faster delivery of content. On the consumer side, net neutrality leaves it up to individuals to decide what type of content they want to access over the Internet.

The Open Internet Order was challenged in court, and in January 2014, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia struck down the rules about blocking content and discriminating against certain types of content. The rule covering transparency, however, remained in place. In May 2014 the FCC announced rules changes that would allow broadband companies to give certain companies preferential treatment—faster content delivery for a fee—providing they behave in a "commercially reasonable manner subject to review on a case-by-case basis." The FCC said it would keep in place its ban on blocking content. Broadband providers were thrilled about potentially being able to implement a tiered system of content delivery. They said higher fees are necessary to upgrade their networks to accommodate the heavy data load.

FCC's Website Can't Handle the Heat

Consumers, many pundits, and advocacy groups were outraged about the proposed changes. Opponents of the change argued that companies that don't pay higher rates will be relegated to the "slow lane," while larger companies that can afford to pay a premium will have their content delivered via a "fast lane." They say that start-ups, small companies, and non-profits won't stand a chance against competitors with far deeper pockets. In fact, many opponents said if this policy were in place in the early days of the Internet, Google and Facebook would never have gotten off the ground. In addition, some opponents fear that the cable and phone companies could block the content of competitors or of companies that refuse to pay.

"The FCC is inviting ISPs to pick winners and losers online," Michael Weinberg, vice president of the consumer-advocacy group Public Knowledge, said in a statement. "This is not Net neutrality. This standard allows ISPs to impose a new price of entry for innovation on the Internet."

Opponents took to airwaves and started social media campaigns against the changes with great success. The FCC invited consumers to comment about the changes on its website, and the response overwhelmed the site's servers, forcing the site to shut down. Since May, some four million people have submitted comments.

Prior to the Open Internet Order, broadband companies were not as tightly regulated as telecommunications services, such as telephones. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 declared phone services to be necessities like utilities, and therefore subject to strict government regulation. Broadband services and cable television were classified as information services, thus subject to less FCC control.

—Beth Rowen
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