Net Neutrality: What is it, and why does it matter?
Net Neutrality has been in the news a lot lately, but it’s a complex issue. Even the experts don’t know exactly what will happen next or what the potential implications could be. If you’re trying to get up-to-speed on the issue, we’re here to help.
What is it?
Net Neutrality is the premise that all traffic on the Internet should be treated equally by service providers and the law.
Basically, if you think of the Internet as a “series of tubes,” it’s the idea that no one should be able to block or halt what goes through them – not even the people who own the tubes.
There are several reasons Internet service providers would like to have that control, though. Comcast had filed suit with the FCC in order to slow down peer-to-peer sharing programs – the most common way of pirating movies, among other things. Other ISPs said they wanted to prevent a small subset of customers from using the majority of available bandwidth (see our post on data caps for more details).
According to “Hands Off The Internet!” - a now defunct site that was primarily sponsored by AT&T - governments should have no regulating powers over the Internet strictly on principle.
So why is Net Neutrality all over the news right now?
In 2010, Verizon challenged a ruling made by the FCC. On January 14th, 2014, Verizon won its case, effectively throwing those rules out.
Those rules were the FCC’s “Open Internet Order,” which specified that no wired Internet carrier could prioritize or discriminate against Web traffic. ISPs would be treated as “common carriers”; that is, they’d be treated the way a phone company is. Phone companies can’t prioritize one customer’s phone call over another.
The key term there, though, is “treated.” The FCC had not actually classified ISPs as “common carriers.” So when Verizon took the case to court, they won based on the fact that the FCC cannot enforce their new rules if ISPs are still technically classified differently than phone and utility companies.
So is Net Neutrality dead, then?
For now, yes. However, since the rules were thrown out on a technicality, the FCC could reclassify “Internet services” as “telecom services.” This would give the FCC the leeway to impose common carrier obligations and reinstate their rules. Their other option is to appeal the decision to the Supreme Court.
The one part of the Open Internet Order that was upheld says providers have to disclose their procedures for managing traffic.
What could happen if Net Neutrality stays dead?
ISPs will have full reign to slow down, block, or prioritize any traffic they want.
In other words, a provider could charge extra for users to access Youtube, Facebook and Gmail. Or it could strike a deal with Hulu to block all traffic to its competitors, like Netflix.
The appeals court that decided the Verizon case agreed. In their decision, they noted that “a broadband provider like Comcast might limit its end-user subscribers’ ability to access the New York Times website if it wanted to spike traffic to its own news website.”
Would that really happen, though?
In 2005, an ISP in North Carolina blocked users from VoIP services (Internet based phone calls) because it competed with their own landline phone services. They eventually unblocked their users and paid $15,000 to the US Treasury to have the FCC drop its inquiry.
In 2012, AT&T blocked all iPhone users from accessing “FaceTime”, a built-in voice/video application, unless they signed up for a new higher-tier data plan. After public interest groups threatened to challenge them with the FCC’s Open Internet Order, AT&T backed down and removed most of the restrictions.
In 2013, during court arguments, Verizon described how they wanted to enter into commercial agreements with “edge providers” (that is, websites) since they were already providing a service to those websites – allowing Verizon customers to access them.
What can be done, then?
As long as Net Neutrality stays in the news, it’s much harder for it to be ignored or forgotten by politicians. And the easiest way to keep it in the news is to keep people informed.
Socket remains committed to the principles of Net Neutrality. Like we’ve said before, it’s your Internet. Use it!
To contact an FCC chairperson, visit http://www.fcc.gov/leadership.