What is Net Neutrality?

Net neutrality: A regulation stating Internet providers can’t block or slow down websites or prioritize their content over others’.

Under the principles of net neutrality, Internet service providers (ISP) should not influence a customer’s ability to access a variety of websites, applications, or services (like Facebook or Netflix). Regardless of their web provider, a customer should be eligible to view any site they wish. In addition, ISPs, under net neutrality regulations, cannot create add-on offers for faster service- users must have access to the same “quality” of web speed. Led by Tom Wheeler in 2015, The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) passed guidelines to ensure Internet providers could not block or slow access to web content. Due to these guidelines, the FCC was also allowed to investigate problematic broadband practices, warranting companies functioned within standards of general conduct. Net neutrality regulations were finalized on February 26, 2015.

Why is it happening?

Republican Chairman Ajit Pai, the current FCC head, has critiqued net neutrality policies for years. According to Pai, net neutrality regulations are too restrictive on businesses and do not provide incentive Internet service improvements. Pai believes pre-emptive regulation (i.e. net neutrality) assumes that “every last wireless company is an anti-competitive monopolist” and turning away from these regulations would employ “targeted enforcement based on actual market failure or anti-competitive conduct.” The chairman conveyed these statements at the Mobile World Congress in February of 2018. The FCC voted on these issues on December 14, 2017, and June 11, 2018 was declared that the net neutrality repeal would take effect. 

What does this mean for you and the Internet? 

Firstly, the new net policies will shift regulatory abilities from the FCC to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). The FTC will be allowed to regulate companies that violate customer contracts or take part in anticompetitive or fraudulent practices. Since the FTC is not solely a telecommunications investigative agency, it will not provide the same regulatory ability as the FCC. The FTC is also unable to make rules regarding net neutrality- instead, it only covers companies’ voluntary public commitments or violations of antitrust law. Any investigations by the FTC happen after wrongdoing occurs, and the processes of investigation can take years. 

On one hand, ISPs will be able to charge internet services like Netflix or Facebook for delivering content to their customers. This means companies that pay will have the ability to provide faster service to customers. Fundamentally, more established businesses, or the ones who can afford to pay fees, will have the upper hand on their competitors. On the other hand, ISPs will now have flexibility to utilize different business models or give priority to certain services, for instance a medical application. These types of business models could be beneficial to a customer, especially if they are in need of accessing applications or sites with greater importance to them at a faster rate.

As far as your online usage goes, it isn’t likely you’ll notice an instant change in the way you experience the web. However, over time, your experience could change. From the Republican perspective, repealing net neutrality rules will lead to an increase in network investment. This, hopefully, would allow networks to expand in hard-to-reach areas and provide faster service throughout the country. The Democratic perspective, along with consumer advocacy groups and civil rights organizations, see the repeal as a way for companies like AT&T to prioritize their networks. This means large networks could limit your access to a variety of sites and take away startup companies’ ability to flourish against larger competitors. Fundamentally, the Internet would begin to mimic that of cable television, becoming a curated experience.

For now, 29 state legislatures have introduced bills to prolong net neutrality. State governors in Hawaii, New Jersey, New York, Montana, Rhode Island, and Vermont have signed executive orders in support of net neutrality. Oregon, Vermont, and Washington have enacted net neutrality legislation. For instance, once the net neutrality repeal went into effect on June 11, 2018, Washington state enacted their new ruling, which nearly mimicked that of the previous federal rule.