Net neutrality is the idea that internet service providers like Comcast and Verizon should treat all content flowing through their cables and cell towers equally. That means they shouldn’t be able to slide some data into “fast lanes” while blocking or otherwise discriminating against other material. In other words, these companies shouldn’t be able to block you from accessing a service like Skype, or slow down Netflix or Hulu, in order to encourage you to keep your cable package or buy a different video-streaming service.
The Federal Communications Commission spent years, under both the Bush and Obama administrations, trying to enforce net neutrality protections. After a series of legal defeats at the hands of broadband providers, the FCC passed a sweeping net neutrality order in 2015. But in December 2017, the now Republican-controlled FCC voted to jettison that order, freeing broadband providers to block or throttle content as they see fit unless Congress or the courts block the agency’s decision.
Net neutrality advocates have long argued that keeping the internet an open playing field is crucial for innovation. If broadband providers pick favorites online, new companies and technologies might never have the chance to grow. For example, had internet providers blocked or severely limited video streaming in the mid-2000s, we might not have Netflix or YouTube today. Other advocates highlight the importance of net neutrality to free expression: a handful of large telecommunications companies dominate the broadband market, which puts an enormous amount of power into their hands to suppress particular views or limit online speech to those who can pay the most.
Most large broadband providers promised not to block or throttle content ahead of the ruling, but all four major mobile carriers began slowing down at least some video content before the FCC had fully repealed the rules. Net neutrality advocates worry things could get worse. A broadband provider might, for example, allow some companies to pay for priority treatment on broadband networks. The fear is that, over time, companies and organizations that either can’t afford priority treatment, or simply aren’t offered access to it, will fall by the wayside.
The History of Net Neutrality
Columbia University law professor Tim Wu coined the term “network neutrality” in a 2003 paper about online discrimination. At the time, some broadband providers, including Comcast, banned home internet users from accessing virtual private networks (VPNs), while others, like AT&T, banned users from using Wi-Fi routers. Wu worried that broadband providers’ tendency to restrict new technologies would hurt innovation in the long term, and called for anti-discrimination rules.
The Bush-era FCC took a first pass at anti-discrimination rules for the internet in a policy statement in 2005. It prohibited internet service providers from blocking legal content or preventing customers from connecting the devices of their choosing to their internet connections. Under this policy, the FCC ordered Comcast in 2008 to stop slowing connections that used the peer-to-peer file-sharing software BitTorrent, which was often used for digital piracy but also had legitimate uses. Comcast sued the FCC, arguing the agency had overstepped its bounds. A federal court agreed, ruling that the FCC had failed to make the legal case that it had the authority to enforce the 2005 policy statement.
In 2010, the Obama-era FCC passed a more detailed net neutrality order that it hoped would stand up to legal scrutiny. But the agency was sued again, this time by Verizon, and in 2014 the same court ruled the agency didn’t have the authority to impose net neutrality regulations on services that weren’t considered common carriers under Title II of the Communications Act, like traditional telephone services.
Later that year, the FCC floated a new proposal that net neutrality proponents worried would allow internet “fast lanes.” The idea drew the ire of comedian John Oliver, who encouraged viewers of his show Last Week Tonight to file comments to express their support for net neutrality. The flood of comments crashed the FCC’s website. The agency eventually received 21.9 million comments on the issue, shattering the record previously held by Janet Jackson’s 2004 Super Bowl “wardrobe malfunction.”
Then-FCC chair Wheeler eventually changed tack and decided to reclassify broadband providers as Title II carriers, though with fewer obligations than landline telephone operators. The FCC passed its sweeping net neutrality order in 2015, and was again sued by telecommunications firms. The same federal court that shot down the FCC’s previous attempts at net neutrality rules finally sided with the agency, ruling that the 2015 rules were legal. An industry group appealed that decision to the Supreme Court, which has yet to hear the case.