Net Neutrality: A Primer

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This Thursday, February 26, Net Neutrality comes up for a vote (that is, if the Republicans don’t get their wish for a delay), and it looks likely to go through. Obama has expressed his support, and the tide of public opinion is on the side of Neutrality. If you’re like a lot of people, you know only that Net Neutrality is something important you’re supposed to care about, but the details are a little fuzzy. Don’t fret. Here’s a brief history of Net Neutrality, and everything you need to know to understand Thursday’s vote.

The back story

Since 1999 the FCC and Congress have sought to balance consumers’ and content creators’ access to the internet with protecting the investments of the companies who build the data networks. In 1999 the issue was about access to old telephone networks for dial-up service, and the question was whether or not to treat the internet service providers as a utility, subject to Federal restrictions and rules. For over a decade the answer was no. Now the issue has morphed into a question of whether or not consumers should be allowed to access content without their service providers slowing or blocking access to specific sites, and the issue of regulation is looking a lot different.

In 2003 the FCC deregulated cable and DSL internet. This deregulation meant internet providers could now behave like regular, free market companies without intervention or restrictions from the Federal government. Great, right? Well, for the cable and DSL companies, yes. The result of this deregulation is a veritable monopoly by a few companies lording over the internet needs of the country, with no real motivation to improve their offerings or services. Without competition, there’s no incentive for providers to offer better service and keep their rates competitive. And for the Internet Service Providers (ISPs), well, it’s the ideal situation. We now have a few companies with a stranglehold on services, little competition, few choices for the consumer, and a situation that demands change.

Another problem was that ISPs took this deregulation as an opportunity to throttle bandwidth, control users’ access to data, and be generally schmucky. In 2008, Comcast blocked access to bittorrent sites, and then immediately denied doing so. The FCC finally stepped in and ordered that Comcast cease blocking bittorrent traffic (a case that Comcast, inexplicably, successfully appealed), but that didn’t stop them from choking speeds at the drop of a hat.

Comcast (and other providers) have been consistently guilty of throttling speeds when users access “too much” data. In the age of streaming entertainment, this becomes a huge liability and an endless annoyance to users. Net Neutrality would mean that they’d no longer be permitted to penalize (or charge a premium to) content creators like Netflix and Hulu, and that they’d no longer be able to slow connections for users who like their downloads fast and plentiful.

What’s the big deal about the 26th?

So on Thursday, the FCC will vote on whether or not internet providers (include wireless internet providers) will be reclassified under Title II of the Communications Act of 1934. Title II would deem the providers to be “common carriers”, meaning companies like Comcast and AT&T would offer their services, “under license or authority provided by a regulatory body.” Title II states that common carriers can’t “make any unjust or unreasonable discrimination in charges, practices, classifications, regulations, facilities, or services.” You can see from this verbiage why Title II connects so well with Net Neutrality.

Proponents of the change say that it’s the only way the FCC can reliably and legally enforce rules protecting an open internet, with no designated fast or slow lanes for packet transfer service. Cable operators and phone companies say this will hurt their investments in the infrastructure needed to build out high-speed networks. But without competition to spur advances, there’s no incentive for them to improve infrastructures as it is. In other words, we’re not buying the cable companies’ Chicken Little claims. And neither are 4 MM others including FCC Chair Tom Wheeler. 

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