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What is net neutrality, and what does it mean for you?

Taylor Gadsden

Mar 10, 2021 — 10 min read

In the land of internet services, “net neutrality” is one of the biggest buzzwords. We break down exactly what it is, how it has evolved and what it means for you.

A small group of protestors supporting net neutrality protest against a plan by Federal Communications Commission (FCC) head Ajit Pai, during a demonstration on December 7, 2017 in Washington.

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Net neutrality is more than just a phrase thrown around by politicians and broadband companies — it’s a battle for the future of internet use. The status of net neutrality laws in the U.S. has ping-ponged with each new president in recent years. In 2017, the Trump administration’s Federal Communications Commission (FCC) repealed sweeping net neutrality rules passed just two years before; in July 2021, President Biden signed an executive order to restore them.  

But for many, there’s still a lot of confusion around what net neutrality is, and what it means for individuals. We’ll help to break down this concept as well as the legal and practical implications surrounding net neutrality law.

What is net neutrality? 

Net neutrality is the principle that internet service providers (ISPs) should provide all online content equally without favoring or blocking specific products, websites or types of content. In short, it means that all traffic on the internet is equal and equally accessible.

Net neutrality law focuses on regulating and/or preventing three main practices:

  • Blocking: ISPs cannot block or prevent access to any lawful content on the web.
  • Paid prioritization: Providers cannot prioritize companies or consumers who pay a premium for a “fast lane” and keep those who don’t pay in a “slow lane.”
  • Throttling: Providers cannot limit your bandwidth or slow your connection based on your internet activities.

Without net neutrality or other laws protecting equal content, ISPs could, in theory, block certain websites and favor others. For example, your internet provider could theoretically make Netflix slower in order to push you towards its cable TV service.

Or, Xfinity could allow their subscribers to stream Peacock content (which they own through NBCUniversal) for free, while charging subscribers for watching Netflix. With net neutrality, you would have free and equal access to both Peacock and Netflix.

Another example would be your ISP slowing your connection every time you try to game over Twitch, but speeding it back up again when you’re not gaming, a practice known as throttling.

The history of net neutrality

In 2003, Columbia University law professor Tim Wu first used the phrase “network neutrality” in a paper about broadband discrimination. At the time, Wu hoped to provide a “general perspective” on net neutrality stating that: “Government regulation in such contexts invariably tries to help ensure that the short-term interests of the owner do not prevent the best products or applications becoming available to end-users.”

The idea caught on quickly. Both the Bush and Obama administrations enacted anti-discrimination rules aimed at protecting net neutrality, but it wasn’t until 2015 that the FCC passed its sweeping net neutrality order.

But it turned out to be short-lived. Just two years later, the Trump administration’s FCC repealed those rules. Now, with an executive order issued on July 9, 2021, President Biden is hoping to restore many of the same rules from 2015.

Here’s a quick history lesson showing how the debate has evolved:

  • 2003: Both Comcast and Cox blocked their internet subscribers from using Virtual Private Networks (VPNs).
  • 2004: FCC chair Michael Powell gave a speech titled “Four Internet Freedoms”: Freedom to access content, freedom to use applications, freedom to attach personal devices and freedom to obtain service plan information.
  • 2005: North Carolina provider Madison River Communication was fined $15,000 for blocking Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) calls and ordered to stop by the FCC.
  • 2006: Congress rejected five different bills that would have given the FCC power to enforce net neutrality violations.
  • 2007: The Internet Freedom Preservation Act, a bill to amend the Communications Act of 1934 to ensure net neutrality, was introduced in Congress but never passed.
  • 2008: The FCC voted 3-2 that Comcast throttling BitTorrent is illegal and violates net neutrality rules. Then-FCC Chairman Kevin Martin says: “We need to protect consumers’ access. While Comcast has said it would stop the arbitrary blocking, consumers deserve to know that the commitment is backed up by legal enforcement.”
  • 2009: After scrutiny by the FCC, AT&T reversed its policy that blocked iPhone users from making internet calls over its cellular network via non-Apple apps such as Skype and Google Voice.
  • 2012: Comcast internet subscribers who own an Xbox 360 can stream Comcast’s On Demand videos through the console without worrying about going over their monthly data limit. Comcast users streaming through other consoles or platforms are still subject to data limits. Comcast’s Xfinity app on Xbox 360 shut down a few years later.
  • 2014: Comcast users complained they were experiencing poor speeds for Netflix. To solve the problem, Comcast charged Netflix a fee to improve the “interconnection between ISPs” and speed up their content (something other ISPs had done with Netflix but without the fee). A year later, the FCC investigated the legality of Netflix’s interconnection complaints and other video providers, such as HBO, Sony and SHOWTIME® started asking ISPs for dedicated bandwidth to improve their video content.
  • 2014: The FCC proposed dividing the internet into fast and slow lanes. Comedian John Oliver addresses the issue on Last Week Tonight, comparing Comcast’s slowing of Netflix speeds to a “mob shakedown.” The FCC received 21.9 million comments on the issue, crashing its website.
  • 2015: Under President Barack Obama and then-FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, the FCC votes 3-2 to adopt the net neutrality law ensuring “that no one — whether government or corporate — should control free open access to the internet.”
  • 2017: In another net neutrality vote, this time under President Donald Trump and FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, the FCC voted 3-2 for a net neutrality repeal. Rules around blocking, throttling and paid prioritization are reversed.
  • 2019: A D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the FCC can legally repeal the net neutrality regulations put forth by the Obama administration.
  • 2021: President Biden signed an executive order restoring the 2015 net neutrality rules. 

Net neutrality repeal in 2017

Just two years after sweeping net neutrality laws were adopted, they were repealed. Prior to being elected, President Trump only spoke about net neutrality in one 2014 tweet. However, shortly after his election, open-web advocates began to suspect that net neutrality would become a target for his administration.

Trump nominated FCC Chairman Ajit Pai (a long-time proponent for repealing net neutrality law) for a five-year term in January 2017. By the end of the year, the net neutrality laws from 2015 had been dismantled under what Pai has called a “plan to restore internet freedom.”

During the FCC’s 3-2 vote in December 2017, the commission voted to:

  • Reclassify broadband internet access as an “information service” under Title I of the Communications Act (in 2015 it had been reclassified as a “common carrier” under Title II of the same act so it could be regulated by the FCC)
  • Restore regulation of broadband consumer protection to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) not the FCC
  • Allow ISPs to participate in any blocking, throttling, paid prioritization or affiliated prioritization as long as they disclose information about their practices to consumers, entrepreneurs and the commission

The FCC also emphasized that “heavy-handed” regulation prevented ISPs from adequately investing in the necessary infrastructure to improve rural broadband access and internet connections as a whole.

In his statement after the vote, Pai asked: “What is responsible for the phenomenal development of the Internet? It certainly wasn’t heavy-handed government regulation.” 

“Simply put, by returning to the light-touch Title I framework, we are helping consumers and promoting competition. Broadband providers will have stronger incentives to build networks, especially in unserved areas, and to upgrade networks to gigabit speeds and 5G,” he said. 

This means there will be more competition among broadband providers. It also means more ways that startups and tech giants alike can deliver applications and content to more users. In short, it’s a freer and more open internet.

Ajit Pai

A Court Appeals for the D.C. Circuit later upheld the decision to strike down net neutrality rules, citing a 2005 case called NCTA v. Brand X. The court also stated that the FCC can’t block states from putting their own net neutrality laws into place, which California, New Jersey, Oregon, Vermont and Washington have all done.  

President Biden’s 2021 executive order

Six months after taking office, President Biden took his first step in restoring the net neutrality laws put in place by the Obama administration. The Executive Order on Promoting Competition in the American Economy covers a wide range of issues, with a focus on technology and agriculture. 

In addition to bringing back the 2015 net neutrality rules, the order also urges the FCC to take other actions to promote competition among internet providers, including more transparent pricing. While it contains a number of bold proposals, right now, that’s all they are. Any rules the FCC enacts will almost certainly be met with lawsuits. We can expect to see this play out in the courts over the next several years. 

Return to 2015

President Biden’s executive order refers specifically to the Obama administration’s sweeping net neutrality rules, urging the FCC to enact “rules similar to those previously adopted” in 2015. That means no blocking, no throttling and no paid prioritization.

Make it easier to switch internet providers

The order also hopes to put an end to “unjust or unreasonable early termination fees…enabling consumers to more easily switch providers.” While most internet providers no longer require contracts, early termination fees with providers like Frontier can go all the way up to $400. 

Broadband Nutrition Label

A big focus in the executive order has been to make broadband prices more transparent for customers. This comes in the form of a “Broadband Nutrition Label,” which aims to “give consumers clear, concise, and accurate information regarding provider prices and fees, performance, and network practices.”

Keep the FCC updated

In addition to keeping consumers informed about what they’re paying for, President Biden also wants internet providers to “regularly report broadband price and subscription rates” to the FCC “for the purpose of disseminating that information to the public in a useful manner.” The number of people who lack broadband access has been notoriously undercounted by the FCC in the past, so this measure would help the government get a more accurate picture of the digital divide. 

Prevent landlords from restricting choice 

Finally, the executive order states that landlords and internet providers should not be able to inhibit tenants’ choices among providers. If you live in a large apartment building, for example, you should still be able to choose from all the providers in your area. 

Access to high-speed internet

According to the FCC, nearly 94.4% of Americans have access to broadband internet speeds (defined as 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload) as of 2018, the latest year that numbers are available. This sounds great until you realize that it equates to nearly 20 million people who don’t have high-speed internet access.

The FCC has also admitted that its data-collection process for reporting internet access (and determining who gets funding to improve access) is flawed. Independent research by Microsoft reports that nearly half the country — a whopping 162 million people — lack high-speed internet access, a lack of connectivity now known as the “digital divide”.

While not contained in this executive order specifically, improving internet access is a big priority for this administration, with $65 billion devoted to the issue in the infrastructure bill moving through Congress. 

What does net neutrality mean for you?

What net neutrality law means for you depends on how you view the need for government regulation of the internet. For some, the “light touch” that Pai mentioned allows for a competitive, capitalist market that will regulate itself naturally. For net neutrality advocates, though, it means the probability of less competition and higher prices.

What we do know is that a lack of net neutrality law means that ISPs are free to do pretty much anything and push the boundaries of what’s fair and just. For instance, some countries without net neutrality are already starting to see ISPs bucket their services and charge more.

In Portugal, being able to stream video on YouTube, Netflix and other services will cost you €4.99/mo. Want to get on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter or other social media sites? That’s another €4.99/mo. Want to listen to music on Spotify or Soundcloud? That’s another €4.99/mo. Want to send messages via iMessage, Skype or other messaging services? That’s another €4.99/mo. and so on.

We’re already starting to see the beginnings of this. Earlier this year, Cox introduced Cox Elite Gamer, which can help to “optimize the connection between your computer and the servers of a select number of games” — for an extra $15/mo. If you want less lag, less jitter and fewer ping spikes while gaming over Cox, it will cost you. Cox representatives have said this does not create a “fast lane” and they won’t reprioritize users.

What we also know is there is large and unwavering public support for net neutrality policy. 

Immediately following the net neutrality repeal in 2017, a poll from the University of Maryland’s Program for Public Consultation found that 83% of Americans favored keeping the FCC net neutrality rules, including 75% of Republicans, 86% of Independents and 89% of Democrats.

This bipartisan support has stayed steady. A 2019 Comparitech survey found that 82% of Americans support net neutrality, and that, again, this support is consistent across party lines (86.9% of Democrats, 79.8% of Independents and 77% of Republicans support) and age demographics (83.2% of Millennials, 79.3% of Gen X and 82.4% of Baby Boomers support).

Thankfully, some providers like Starry Internet have given their public stances on net neutrality law to provide some clarity during the neverending legal fog.

“These are our clear Open Internet commitments to our customers:”

  • We do not prioritize any content, application or service.
  • We do not block access to any legal content, application or service.
  • We do not cap the amount of data you can use.
  • We do not inspect and collect the contents of data packets that transit through our network.
  • We do not throttle specific content, applications or services.
  • We do not prohibit you from attaching non-harmful devices to your connection.

However, Starry is one of the few providers that has given an explicit statement on net neutrality. Providers like Spectrum, Optimum and Xfinity state that they also will not prioritize content, but some will cap your data to help with network congestion. 

Be sure to look into your provider’s data cap and throttling rules before you sign a contract, or you may find yourself experiencing low-quality service with an otherwise perfectly good internet plan. 

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Taylor Gadsden

Written by:

Taylor Gadsden

Writer, Broadband & Wireless Content

Taylor is a veteran member of the Allconnect content team and has spearheaded a number of projects, including a data piece on the top fiber cities in the U.S. and a troubleshooting guide on how to connect your p… Read more

Robin Layton

Edited by:

Robin Layton

Editor, Broadband Content

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