An Overview of Net Neutrality

It has been over a year since the net neutrality laws were repealed in the US and the effects of the decision have been far-reaching. To date, the debate is still ongoing as supporters are still pressuring Congress to bring it back and some states have even set up their own legislation to enforce net neutrality.

This has been a divisive issue in the US, but the conversation extends beyond the US. That is why you need to learn more about net neutrality, as it is important to know what it is all about before taking a side. Furthermore, the impact of this issue will affect you directly every time you’re browsing the web. 

What is net neutrality?

In the simplest terms, net neutrality means that no one gets to control access to the internet regardless of content, sources or application. That basically means that no one can control what you do with your internet connection. Without net neutrality, Internet Service Providers (ISPs) can choose to favor certain services and limit access to others.  

To understand how net neutrality is enforced, you have to look at the laws that govern internet access. The discussion started years ago when the internet was still uncommon, but now the topic is far more sensitive because of people’s reliance on the internet. According to the Communications Act of 1934, internet services can either be treated as information services under Title I or as common carrier service under Title II. Under Title I, the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) has no authority over ISPs, but the FCC directly regulates ISPs under Title II. 

During the previous administration, the FCC had authority over ISPs under Title II, thus ensuring there was net neutrality. This followed the passing of the Open Internet Order in 2015 that reinforced net neutrality by condemning blocking or discrimination on the Internet. This was all under the leadership of then-FCC chair Tom Wheeler. Then in 2015, Ajit Pai was appointed as FCC chair and the commission voted to repeal the net neutrality. After 6 months, net neutrality was officially repealed in June 2018 and internet services were being governed under Title I. 

Without net neutrality, ISPs are free to block certain content and services, throttle or slow down particular websites and even receive payment in exchange for prioritization. For instance, imagine if ISPs like AT;T, Comcast and Verizon chose to speed up access to Amazon Prime and limit users’ network speeds to Netflix perhaps because they have been paid to do so. Of course, this is a theoretical example, but it is possible without net neutrality laws in place to govern internet access. Furthermore, ISPs are also free to sell their customers’ geolocation information to data brokers, which is a huge invasion of privacy.

What was really amazing is that the FCC repealed net neutrality despite 83% of Americans being in support of it. Only the ISPs seemed to celebrate the repeal, and it is not hard to imagine why. In fact, ISPs have always been pushing for a repeal of net neutrality laws for decades, and they finally got their wish. As you would expect, these companies promised not to use these laws to discriminate, but now there is nothing to stop them if they wanted to. 

What has been the effect of the repeal of net neutrality?

The economic impact of the repeal has been confusing. On one hand, FCC chair Ajit Pai claimed that investment into the country’s broadband networks has increased by $3 billion in 2018. On the other hand, Gigi Sohn, who was an advisor to former FCC chair Tom Wheeler, claims that the opposite is true. According to Sohn, Charter, Verizon and Comcast have actually invested less in their networks since net neutrality was repealed.

Although the actual economic impact is unclear, there have been some obvious practical impacts. The largest study was conducted by Northeastern University and the University of Massachusetts, Amherst by 100,000 individuals. The results showed that the country’s biggest telecom companies have been throttling access to services such as YouTube and Netflix as well as several others. In response, the ISPs claim that people can still stream at decent quality, but they have to pay more for higher quality videos. 

A direct impact of the new laws was felt by the Santa Clara County Fire Department during the California fires. The website was facing severe slowdowns, and the fire department was forced to pay for a more expensive plan just to get their speeds back up. 

Not to sound too one-sided, it’s probably fair to look at what the ISPs and FCC have to say about net neutrality. According to them, ISPs can now deliver better services by prioritizing services that are in more demand while throttling the less popular. As an example, a big business with plenty of visitors ought to get more priority because of higher traffic compared to a smaller business. Although seemingly reasonable, it does make competition unfair and more difficult for smaller businesses to stand out.

What is the future of net neutrality?

So far, there is no sign that net neutrality will be restored, and the bill was already vetoed by Congress last year. Nevertheless, individual states are not passing their own net neutrality laws, although they are being fought by the Department of Justice.