The Skinny on Net Neutrality

Net neutrality has become a hot topic in the news in recent months as Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Ajit Pai repealed a 2015 decision to change how the internet was handled on the federal level. While this issue affects every internet user, many in the public do not fully understand what has happened and what state the internet is currently in.

What is Net Neutrality?

Net neutrality is the concept that internet service providers (ISPs) should treat all data equally. Under net neutrality, ISPs cannot slow down, also known as throttling, or charge internet users differently based on how they use their data or what services they use online. The FCC is the official government body that oversees this issue.

For example, in 2004 The Madison River Communications Company was fined by the FCC for restricting access to the website of rival company Vonage. This demonstrates a violation of net neutrality because the company was not allowing their users unregulated access to all websites.

Legal History

As the internet began surging in popularity in the late 1990s and into the 2000s, it was largely an unregulated wild west where ISPs could provide whatever services they saw fit. By default, the internet fell under Title I of the Communications Act of 1934, classifying it under general provisions. This classification is what left most internet regulation to the free market.

This changed in 2010 when the FCC issued the FCC Open Internet Order. This set a standard of four net neutrality principles:

  • Transparency, meaning consumers have the right to know basic performance characteristics of their network
  • No blocking, meaning an ISP cannot block websites discriminately
  • A level playing field, meaning websites cannot pay for higher web speeds from ISPs
  • Network Management, meaning networks are still allowed to offer different tiers of internet speed that still follow the universality of net neutrality

These would be watched by an internet advisory committee to make sure ISPs were compliant.

In 2014, the U.S. court of appeals for the D.C. Circuit ruled in favor of Verizon Wireless in a lawsuit against the FCC. The court found that the regulations under the Open Internet Order could not be applied to the internet because it was still under Title I. To enforce the provisions, the internet would need to be changed to be regulated under Title II of the Communications Act of 1934, placing it under common carrier.

In 2015, the FCC made that change. By changing the internet’s classification to that of a public utility, the FCC could enforce their net neutrality regulations. The recent decision at the end of 2017 reversed that decision, causing the internet to revert back to Title I and leaving the majority of its regulation to ISPs. The internet is currently in the state it was prior to the 2015 decision.

Arguments for and against Net Neutrality

Supporters of net neutrality claim to want to ensure the FCC regulate the control of data ISPs have, maintain digital rights and freedoms for all, prevent blocking or throttling of certain websites (especially that of competitors), and ensure equal treatment on the internet for all.

Those against the regulations claim that they choke technological investments, deter competition by hindering the growth of small ISPs, and add unnecessary costs that are passed to the consumers that come from unnecessary regulation.

Conclusion

The internet is currently the same service we have immensely enjoyed the last couple decades. The internet did not come crashing down when these regulations were rolled away. Aspects of net neutrality still survive; the federal government is just much less able to regulate. It is now the responsibility of us as consumers to be cautious of internet service providers to ensure that the internet remain fair for all and that the level playing field be maintained.

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