Net neutrality is more than just a buzzword thrown around by politicians — it’s a battle for the future of the internet. But for many, there’s 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 around 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 instance, your ISP could make all Bing searches free but charge you every time you want to search for something on Google.
Or, Comcast 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.”
Advocates of net neutrality argue that government regulation is necessary to prevent ISPs from operating only in their best interests and not the interest of the user.
Prior to official net neutrality law being established by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), there were several cases of ISPs perhaps acting not in the interest of the user. 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).
- 2005: North Carolina provider Madison River Communication is fined $15,000 for blocking Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) calls and ordered to stop by the FCC.
- 2006: Congress rejects 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 passes.
- 2008: The FCC votes 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 reverses 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 is shut down a few years later.
- 2014: Comcast users complain they’re 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 begins investigating the legality of Netflix’s interconnection complaints and other video providers, such as HBO, Sony and Showtime start asking ISPs for dedicated bandwidth to improve their video content.
- 2015: Under President Barack Obama and then-FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, the FCC votes 3-2 to adopt 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 votes 3-2 for a net neutrality repeal. Rules around blocking, throttling and paid prioritization are reversed.
Net neutrality repeal and current status
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 current 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.”
The future of net neutrality
Net neutrality may have been abandoned at the federal level, but based on a 2019 federal court ruling, states could pass their own net neutrality law.
California led the way in 2018 with the adoption of SB 822, otherwise known as the California Internet Consumer Protection and Net Neutrality Act of 2018. That same year, 34 states and the District of Columbia introduced some sort of state bill in support of a net neutrality law.
These range from a New Jersey state bill adopted in February 2018 urging the president and Congress to restore net neutrality in federal law to a Massachusetts state bill passed in July 2018 that “protects consumers by prohibiting blocking, throttling or paid prioritization in the provision of internet service.”
Additionally, a number of politicians, including Sen. Kamala Harris and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke, as well as tech pioneers like Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak and World Wide Web founder Tim Berners-Lee, have submitted public comment or signed an open letter calling for the restoration of net neutrality.
Based on Pai’s statements, though, the future of net neutrality is that laws governing the internet won’t exist — allowing for a freer, more open web and an increase in investments in infrastructure. Has that been the case since their December 2017 decision? Not quite.
Access to high-speed internet
According to the FCC, nearly 93.5% of Americans have access to broadband internet speeds (defined as 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload) as of 2017. This sounds great until you realize that it equates to 21.3 million people lacking 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 2015 FCC Broadband Progress Report found that prior to net neutrality laws being adopted nearly 17%, or 55 million people, lacked broadband access. By 2016, that number had reduced to 10% or 34 million Americans, but by 2017 it had only dropped to around 6.5%. Data for 2018 and beyond is not yet available.
The consolidation of internet service providers
According to the FCC’s data, 93.35% of United States residents have access to three or more providers offering broadband speeds. In practice, though, most consumers tend to find themselves choosing between two options — DSL or cable internet — and in some cases, it’s between two providers — AT&T and Comcast.
As of June 2018, those two providers were responsible for internet service coverage to a combined 75% of the population. And those two providers and others have only been getting bigger while acquiring other media brands that produce content they’d like to control.
For instance, in 2015, the government blocked a $45 billion bid by Comcast to purchase Time Warner Cable stating that the merger would give Comcast an “unfair advantage” and “too much control” in the cable TV and internet market.
Instead, Charter Communications acquired Time Warner Cable as well as BrightHouse Networks in a separate bid in 2016 promising “faster, cheaper internet.” The companies rebranded and operate under the Spectrum name in most markets now.
Prior to the merger, Charter had about 6.8 million total customers across internet and TV services and now serves more than 22 million residential internet subscribers alone. The Charter-Spectrum brand is now the second largest ISP behind Comcast.
Additionally, they’ve increased their prices three times in just the last 12 months!
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 internet service providers 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. For instance, as mentioned above, Comcast is expected to offer Peacock, their new NBC-based streaming service, free to Comcast subscribers, but charge non-Comcast subscribers.
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 2018 poll conducted by Mozilla and Ipsos found that 91% of Americans “believe consumers should be able to freely and quickly access their preferred content on the internet” — up from 86% in 2017.
Earlier this year, a 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).
For now, though, the fate of net neutrality rests solely in the hands of the 2020 election.