Despite that certifiable fact, it’s been on every airwave over the past few years. Politicians on both sides of the aisle have debated it, and, unsurprisingly, did very little about it.
It wasn’t until late 2017 that a Trump-appointed FCC oversaw a vote to repeal the principle.
Because we basically live in a world where nothing makes sense and where the opposite of common sense reigns supreme.
Democrats recently introduced a three-page bill in the hope of restoring what was lost. And advocacy groups are piling on the pressure to get politicians on board.
But why does it matter? And what even is it in the first place?
Here’s why the very future of the internet is at stake, and what you can do about it.
What Is Net Neutrality?
Net Neutrality is not a new concept. In fact, it dates back over fifteen years ago.
The term “Net Neutrality” was first coined in 2003 by Tim Wu, a media law professor at Columbia University. It’s a principle stating that ISPs can’t charge customers more based on the platform, content, application, website, or equipment that they’re using.
In other words, the internet should remain under neutral control.
It’s a fairly simple principle, mostly keeping with the original vision that a founding father of the internet, Tim Berners-Lee, had for the World Wide Web. Berners-Lee dreamed of a decentralized platform, controlled not by the greed of hungry corporations, but by the user.
That’s why, when the internet first rolled out, Berners-Lee made it free to use. He wanted to promote a thriving system that was built upon the ingenuity of developers.
It keeps your ISP (and others) from having too much control or say over ‘who’ gets ‘what.’
The fear is that a large internet company like Comcast or Verizon could charge you more to use competing websites or services, going so far as to throttle the speeds of companies that oppose them.
For example, aside from being an internet company, Comcast is one of the largest cable television providers in the world. The major enemy of cable television over the last decade has been streaming services like Netflix.
Many are abandoning cable, believing it to be archaic and expensive, as opposed to streaming services which give the user more control over the content they’re paying to watch.
And those people would be right.
Without Net Neutrality rules, however, Comcast could choke the speed of Netflix for all of their customers. The result would be a frustratingly-sluggish streaming experience with poor picture quality and repeated buffering interruptions. Frustrated, the customer turns back to cable television, putting more money back into Comcast’s pocket.
Another potentially unfair scenario comes in the form of prioritization.
Without Net Neutrality, an ISP like Verizon could make a deal with a streaming company like Hulu. In this hypothetical situation, Hulu pays Verizon a sum of money in exchange for preferential speeds. Verizon would then make Hulu’s speed faster while limiting the speed of competing services like Netflix or Amazon Prime.
This preferential speed is what’s known as an ‘internet fast lane.’
If you think that this doesn’t sound fair to the consumer or to the free market economy in general, you’re more in keeping with the Democrat line of thinking.
Democrats had historically protected Net Neutrality laws since 2015 through common carrier regulations. These regulations existed solely to prevent abuse, like the hypothetical examples listed above.
They sought to have broadband internet services regulated as a public utility, like water, electricity, and natural gas.
You know, important stuff.
The Open Internet Order of 2015 effectively reclassified the internet as a common carrier telecommunications service.
This ruling stood for only two years as President Donald Trump’s appointed FCC Chairman, Ajit Pai —WHO JUST SO HAPPENED TO WORK AT VERIZON — oversaw a vote in 2017 to repeal Net Neutrality, making the internet an information service once more, solely controlled by corporations.
Here’s why that’s an issue.
Examples of Misuse That Are Already Happening
One of the reasons that Net Neutrality became necessary in 2015 were repeated violations of perceived ‘internet rights.’
Buckle up, ‘cause it’s about to get icky.
From 2008 to 2011, reports showed that Comcast utilized forged packets to throttle peer-to-peer file sharing apps, such as BitTorrent.
Torrenting is when users download large files by connecting to the systems of other users. While there is a lot of torrenting that’s done legally, a great deal of the downloaded content is copyrighted.
That’s why Comcast decided to fight back. Except, they got caught. The FCC discovered the throttling attempt and ordered them to stop.
Fines have been levied against companies in the past for attempting to manipulate the internet. The FCC fined the Madison River Communications Company $15,000 in 2004 for attempting to restrict access to Vonage, an internet phone company.
Vonage was a competitor so, rather than compete in a free-and-open market, Madison River Communications tried to use its influence to stifle the competing service.
AT&T, no stranger to ethical gray areas, was caught throttling the speed of Apple’s popular FaceTime video messaging service. Users could only access the full speed by paying for AT&T’s shared data plans.
Once it was discovered, AT&T quickly lifted the restrictions.
Verizon throttled the data speed of first responders during California’s largest ever wildfires.
And all this time we merely thought their service was crap.
Users have blamed Verizon Wireless for a number of Net Neutrality related issues. (I see you, Ajit.)
In 2017, customers accused Verizon of throttling access to streaming services such as YouTube and Netflix. When pressed on the issue, Verizon claimed it was performing network testing. It should be noted, however, that Verizon also has a television service called Verizon Fios so they would benefit from the limiting of Netflix and YouTube.
To show you that Verizon’s shame knows no bounds, they were in the news recently during the California wildfires, once more flexing their power over the internet service of their users. The Santa Clara Fire Department was using Verizon’s service to coordinate an emergency response while a large chunk of California burned.
Verizon then throttled their data speed stating that the first responders had gone over their allotted data amount, crippling their ability to fight the largest wildfire in the history of the state.
All while Congress and the FCC sat idly by, twiddling their thumbs. Thanks for looking out.
While this latest infraction may not be a Net Neutrality issue directly, many are pointing to this as an example of big corporate influence over our use of the internet. By impeding the ability of first responders to coordinate, Verizon was putting property and human lives on the line in the name of profit.
Take a wild guess at how they’ll treat lesser issues, like your privacy, in relation.
Net Neutrality in Other Countries
Net Neutrality is not a uniquely American issue. We’re just the experts at screwing up a good thing.
The internet is global, and thus all countries have a vested interest in how it’s used.
Typically, if a government acknowledges Net Neutrality and comments on the concept, they support it.
Here are some examples of the Net Neutrality conversation in other countries throughout the world.
Swing and a miss.
China has no real accounting of net neutrality.
That’s because ISPs are used by the government to limit the content that its citizens can access. They do this through the use of what’s called The Great Firewall of China. Many foreign websites such as YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter, are blocked to the general public.
The Chinese government manipulates the flow of information while simultaneously limiting access to any voices that might criticize the government’s viewpoints. When the government takes such a heavy hand in limiting internet freedom, it’s no wonder that issues of corporate misuse are not on the Chinese radar.
They established the framework for the European Union’s rules on Net Neutrality in Article 3 of the EU Regulation 2015/2120.
This began to take shape in 2002 with electronic communications services and networks. When the EU took a look at its internet policy in 2007, it called for the potential need to mandate Net Neutrality to counter the issue of non-neutral broadband access.
The EU attempted to make internet limitations more transparent by forcing ISPs to make their customers aware of any limitations or intentional throttling of service quality. They highlighted this in the telecoms package that passed through parliament at the end of 2009.
The EU didn’t pass its first official rules on Net Neutrality until June of 2015, roughly the same time as the United States.
These mandates, however, represent little more than a framework. Some individual countries are discussing further legislation to strengthen their stance on Net Neutrality. The issue is ongoing in Belgium, France, and Italy. Member countries Slovenia and the Netherlands have already had far tougher laws on Net Neutrality in place since 2012.
The EU’s Net Neutrality framework has come under fire from critics because of the number of potential loopholes ISPs can take advantage of.
One example states that ISPs have the option to offer priority speeds to specialized services such as remote surgery applications or driverless cars. Another problematic issue is the ability of an ISP to give a website a “zero rating.” That means that the use of the service does not count against a user’s data limit. Those zero-rated sites have an advantage over their competitors, similar to an internet fast lane.
The Russian government actually takes steps to uphold Net Neutrality.
It has blocked ISPs throughout the country from blocking websites, except, of course, for those that the government has told them to block.
Russia is another country that limits its citizens’ access to certain websites, specifically anything critical of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s regime.
However, the country does not want ISPs deciding what sites to throttle. (That power remains solidly in the establishment’s hands.)
Russian ISPs had a habit of limiting peer-to-peer software like BitTorrent. After four years of back and forth discussion, they put Net Neutrality laws into place in 2016.
Russia takes a hard stance on many internet issues, going so far as to ban all VPNs that have not been hand selected by the government. So it’s truly fascinating that a country that takes such extreme measures to censor the internet, and uses it to spy on its people, would uphold internet neutrality laws.
Net Neutrality isn’t given much thought in the UK, apparently.
It’s mostly referred to as “an open internet” across the pond. They feel Net Neutrality is an American political term and parliament typically avoids using it.
The UK’s regulatory bodies mostly shape arguments as to the pros and cons of an open internet. And their stance on the issue tends to be influenced by the progress (or lack of progress) of other European nations.
While the issue does not seem to be taken seriously within the UK, there have been a number of Net Neutrality issues taking place over there.
Exhibit A includes what happened back in 2007 when the British ISP Plusnet was secretly limiting online gaming traffic, file transfer protocols, and peer-to-peer torrenting networks.
Net Neutrality in the United States
The misadventures of the US with Net Neutrality goes back 15 years.
To get a more accurate understanding of how it began and where it’s going, we first need to highlight some of the key moments in this conflict and then dive deeper.
Net Neutrality Timeline
Open Internet Order
The Obama administration passed the 2015 Open Internet Order. It officially reclassified Broadband Internet Access Service.
They now defined BIAS as being any “mass market retail service that provides the capability to transmit data and receive data from all or substantially all internet endpoints, including any capabilities that are incidental to and enable the operation of the communications service.”
It also covers anything that is the “functional equivalent” of that.
They put in place three significant rules as part of the OIO.
- Internet companies cannot block access to legal content, services, applications, or devices that are not harmful. They made exceptions for what they described as “reasonable network management.”
- The speed of lawful internet traffic based on applications, services, content, or devices that are not harmful cannot be throttled or degraded in any way. This provision is also subject to the aforementioned “reasonable network management” loophole.
- Paid prioritization cannot be given to some lawful traffic over others. This effectively put a stop to internet fast lanes and prevented ISPs from favoring affiliates over their competitors. This rule has no exception for network management.
Open Internet Order Overturned
When Ajit Pai’s FCC overturned Net Neutrality rules at the end of 2017, they were overturning the Open Internet Order.
Pai described the Open Internet Order as “heavy-handed” and “a mistake.” He claimed that the order limited innovation and investment in the expansion of broadband networks.
Tom Wheeler, the former FCC Chair fired back on the need for these rules, stating, “We need a referee on the field who can throw a flag.”
There was a lot of misinformation spread during the repeal debate.
Communications companies and politicians circulated stories that Net Neutrality rules gave “free internet” to companies like Netflix. They repeatedly stated, in an attempt to sway public opinion, that Net Neutrality rules would create “significant new costs” for consumers.
It’s worth noting that they never stated what these significant new costs would be.
With Net Neutrality overturned, the job of policing the internet now falls to the Federal Trade Commission, rather than the FCC. But, whereas the FCC is solely focused on communications, the FTC oversees the entire US economy. There is great doubt over whether this commission is equipped to police the internet in as efficient a manner as the FCC could.
Furthermore, the FTC has no rulemaking authority. Their enforcement power ends at the line of a company’s public comments and whether they violate any US antitrust laws. Any investigations into wrongdoing could take years.
In essence, that leaves ISPs with full, unchecked authority to dictate our use of the internet as they see fit.
Internet rights are civil rights. Gutting Net Neutrality will have a devastating effect on free speech online.
How Will the Internet Change Without Net Neutrality?
The US now functions on a closed internet, completely privatized and under the unchecked jurisdiction of for-profit organizations.
Changes to daily life will be slow, but the potential for massive shifts are possible.
Looking at the big picture, Republicans are hopeful that eliminating Net Neutrality will force more investment and innovation, bringing internet and mobile data services to some of the more rural areas of the US. The other major hope in repealing the Open Internet Order is to see faster internet speeds throughout the country.
The Democrats, along with many consumer advocacy and civil rights groups, are concerned at the unprecedented levels of control and power these broadband companies will now have as it pertains to our internet consumption.
For starters, users may begin to notice a marked slowdown in services like YouTube TV or other streaming apps that compete directly with cable television. So, if you’re one of the many people who has cast out cable in favor of streaming on Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon, you may soon find your ability to enjoy uninterrupted programming to be in jeopardy.
We could also see the return of ‘internet fast lanes.’ If Sprint makes a deal with Netflix for faster speed on their network, users who want to use Netflix as their primary entertainment source would be forced to switch over.
While Republicans seem sure that repealing Net Neutrality will lead to decreased internet costs, critics argue that we could actually see higher prices as a result.
The American Civil Liberties Union warned that by giving large corporations so much control over content, we could eventually see censorship of free speech akin to what occurs in Russia.
’Internet rights are civil rights,’ said ACLU Senior Policy Analyst Jeff Stanley. ’Gutting Net Neutrality will have a devastating effect on free speech online. Without it, gateway corporations like Comcast, Verizon, and AT&T will have too much power to mess with the free flow of information.’