Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Understanding - and Taking a Stand On - Net Neutrality

By Alexander MaiselPublished March 11, 2015

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As politicians and regulators battle over the "openness" of the Internet, it is critical that the issue be decided carefully and swiftly, as it will determine the equity of the web for all consumers. Ultimately, net neutrality is an absolute necessity for assuring that Internet providers treat all users and web services equally and fairly.
By Alex Maisel, 3/11/15

What Is Net Neutrality?

            As the policy debate over net neutrality wages on, it is easy to lose the true meaning of the term in political jargon. To understand the significance of net neutrality, it may be important to have some background knowledge about how the net operates in general. Internet data (let's say, your Netflix stream of House of Cards) is transferred from a website (i.e. netflix.com) to your device by an ISP, or Internet Service Provider like Comcast, Time Warner Cable, AT&T, and Verizon.  Net neutrality is the idea that ISPs should deliver all content at the same rate. That is, net neutrality would block Comcast from charging extra money to Netflix to have its videos delivered more rapidly than content from another service, like Hulu. Any net neutrality-themed regulation would likely limit or eradicate the ability of ISPs to create these so-called "internet fast lanes."

Why Do We Need It?

            Initially, the idea of having your services pay extra for superior content provision may not sound like a bad thing. In fact, as companies like Comcast and Time Warner argue, this additional fee could potentially encourage innovation and superior service in the long run.

That being said, the insidious nature of a non-neutral Internet arises not from its impact on well-established sites like Netflix, Amazon, Facebook, etc. These companies could easily afford the fees charged by ISPs to utilize the Internet fast lanes. In reality, the problem is crucial for smaller, less established content providers. Without net neutrality, there is a distinct possibility that sites like this, lacking the financial ability to afford faster speeds, would have their content throttled or blocked altogether by ISPs. Similarly, there are significant concerns that Internet service providers could "play favorites" and provide superior service for some content over others. This is especially troubling in cases where an ISP is also a content provider, such as Time Warner owning HBO. Without net neutrality, what would stop ISPs for throttling or blocking the content from competing services to push viewers toward their own services?

From this vantage point, net neutrality quickly transforms from a debate about technological terminology to protecting the pioneering spirit that is present currently on the web. In order to encourage free expression and enterprise on the web, net neutrality is an absolute necessity.

What Does Net Neutrality Look Like Today?     

The legal status of net neutrality in the United States is currently in flux and has gone through several iterations. Essentially, the United States Federal Communication Commission (FCC) has made various efforts to enforce net neutrality, but legal classification and existing precedents have thwarted its attempts. To clarify it, here is a brief timeline of these events:

·  2002  —  FCC opts to regulate ISPs as information providers, rather than telecommunications utility. Per the Communications Act of 1934, information carriers are regulated far less strictly than their counterparts in the telecom industry, such as phone service companies.

·  2005  —  FCC attempts to heavily regulate the actions of Internet service providers.

·  2010  —  Comcast Corp. challenges the FCC with having no legal justification for this regulation. In Comcast v. FCC, this opinion is unanimously upheld. Responding to this defeat, FCC releases the "Open Internet Order," a set of guidelines aimed at forcing ISPs to transparently transmit all legal Internet without discriminating against any content providers.  These regulations essentially applied the rules for telecommunications companies to information providers.

·  2014  —  In a split decision of Verizon v. FCC, DC District Court of Appeals nullifies large portions of the Open Internet Order. The basis for the decision was that, according to the FCC's own protocols, information service providers can only be loosely regulated.  

That (almost) brings us to the current state of net neutrality regulation. Since the Verizon case, there has been an immense amount of pressure placed on the FCC to reclassify ISPs as telecommunications carriers, thereby holding the companies to much firmer regulatory standards. In February of 2015, the FCC promised to do precisely that. At the time of this writing, FCC has approved plans to reclassify ISPs and subject them to the appropriately strict regulations. In doing so, many observers believe the FCC has finally found a legal basis for enforcing net neutrality standards.

What's Next?

            As stated, the FCC has finally taken the crucial step of reclassifying ISPs as telecommunications carriers. However, these regulations likely will not take effect for several condemned the new stance. As a consumer, it is necessary to applied continued pressure on these companies to change their stances.

As this policy war wages on, the movement that pushed the FCC into action cannot simply sit on the sidelines and wait for the legal battles to run their course. Public opinion has been shown to influence outcomes in a variety of high-profile cases, and net neutrality will be no different. In a faceoff between a powerful regulatory agency and equally powerful corporate giants, the individual citizen must make his or her voice heard.