Over the last decade, net neutrality has increasingly made its way into public discourse: politicians on Capitol Hill have battled over it, corporations have worked to curb it and public interest advocates have fought to preserve it. In September, the fight to keep the Internet free and open found its way to the DC’s Circuit Court of Appeals, where Verizon is attempting to overturn the Federal Communications Commission’s current net neutrality regulations. Verizon vs. FCC, which could be decided as soon as this month, is the latest and arguably most important battle to protect the Internet from censorship and discrimination. But what is net neutrality? And what could this case mean for the future of the Internet? We’ve put together this explainer to catch you up.
What is net neutrality?
Network neutrality, or net neutrality, is a term first coined by technology policy scholar Tim Wu to describe the preservation of online innovation by prohibiting companies from discriminating against some users and content, or prioritizing some content over others. It guarantees a level playing field in which Internet users do not have to pay Internet service providers more for better access to online content, and content generators do not have to pay additional fees to ensure users can access their websites or apps.
By the way, what is an Internet service provider?
An Internet service provider, or ISP, is a company or organization that sells you access to the Internet. These companies, like Comcast, Verizon, Time Warner Cable or CenturyLink, do not own the Internet, they just provide the infrastructure needed to access it, like underground fiber optic cables. It’s a lot like how your local water company doesn’t actually own the water you use, they just own the water pipes.
Is net neutrality a new concept?
No. The first innovators of the Word Wide Web intended for Internet to be non-discriminatory and fair to all users. Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the Web, is a staunch supporter of net neutrality regulation and frequently makes public critiques of companies who aim to violate it.
Now, what happens without net neutrality?
Without net neutrality, your Internet service provider could block or slow online content, depending on which websites or apps they wish to preference. For example, an ISP might speed up your access to NBC.com, but slow or degrade your access to AlJazeera.com. They could also charge different prices for different content. An ISP might charge NBC.com more to host last week’s episode of Parks and Recreation than to feature an article about it. Internet service providers could also charge fees to Internet companies for providing that content to you. They might, for example, begin charging Netflix a fee for carrying online video over its network, which it likely will pass on along to its customers.
Has anyone in the US attempted to establish net neutrality rules?
Yes, the FCC issued an Internet policy statement in September 2005 that attempted to ensure ISPs “operated in a neutral manner” by offering consumers choice in content, providers and devices. But because it was merely a policy statement, it came with no enforceable rules. In 2006, Republican Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska introduced a failed bill that would have prohibited ISPs from blocking traffic or applications. It would have also tasked the FCC with studying net neutrality for five years and handling net neutrality complaints.
What movement on net neutrality has happened since Obama took office?
The FCC shifted to the left after Obama’s 2008 campaign, which included a net neutrality platform. Obama appointed Julius Genachowski, a lawyer and media businessman who had previously served on the campaign’s technology policy working group, as the commission’s new chairman in 2009. With a new, more liberal chairman and a pro-net neutrality president in office, the FCC began the process of introducing net neutrality rules in October of 2009. In August of 2010, Google and Verizon released a joint policy proposal intended for the FCC as a framework for net neutrality rules, emphasizing self-regulation on broadband Internet. This proposal called for stricter net neutrality regulations on wired Internet services than on wireless Internet services and extremely limited regulation from the Commission. Four months later, in December 2010, the FCC adopted the Open Internet Order by a 3-2 vote. The order, which instituted relatively light net neutrality rules, imposed stricter rules on wired Internet services and weaker rules on wireless services, just as the Google and Verizon proposal had suggested.
What are the rules in the FCC’s Open Internet Order?
Wired Internet service providers, like your broadband Internet at home, are prohibited from blocking content, must disclose their network management practices, terms and conditions and are prohibited from prioritizing some traffic over others. On the other hand, mobile broadband providers, like your cell phone carrier or wireless internet provider, are only required to disclose their network management practices and terms and conditions of their service. These orders fell short of public interest goals to protect consumers, as people are increasingly accessing the Internet via mobile devices. But they also extended too far for some conservative congress members and companies, like Verizon.
Why did Verizon take the FCC to court over net neutrality?
Shortly after the order was instituted in 2011, Verizon sued the FCC saying that the commission does not have regulatory authority to impose net neutrality rules on any Internet Service Provider. After two years of legal filings, oral arguments for Verizon vs. FCC began in the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in September.