The FCC is reviving net neutrality. But what does that mean?

The FCC is reviving net neutrality. But what does that mean?

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The FCC is defrosting net neutrality once again, bringing back internet protection laws intended to keep users from paying high prices for the same web.

In an exclusive statement to Reuters, FCC chair Jessica Rosenworcel said the federal committee would be voting to bring back net neutrality laws at the end of the month, despite lingering internal challenges. “The pandemic made clear that broadband is an essential service, that every one of us — no matter who we are or where we live — needs it to have a fair shot at success in the digital age,” she told the publication. “An essential service requires oversight and in this case we are just putting back in place the rules that have already been court-approved that [ensure] that broadband access is fast, open, and fair.”

But former net neutrality protections have failed to fully stick in the U.S., so what’s up? 

What is net neutrality?

Net neutrality is an internet anti-discrimination principle that argues for the equal treatment of websites and services by Internet Service Providers (ISPs). In the words of its supporters, the concept ensures fast, open, and fair broadband access to all. It’s the path toward an “open internet.

In practice, net neutrality regulations include prohibitions on ISPs blocking (legal) websites and services as part of paid packages, or throttling website speeds according to a customer’s plan or at the ISP’s discretion. Laws may also block the prioritization of services and providers that pay more for bandwidth access, or ensure that users of different ISPs receive similar web experiences. 

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For consumers, a world without net neutrality could look like Verizon striking a deal with one website or streaming service, and then charging you more to access its competitors. An ISP could censor entire categories of apps from free access. Conversely, some credit the rise of online streaming services with former net neutrality protections, including the Disney+ acquisitions that now let you digitally stream what were once cable-only channels.

On the whole, net neutrality argues that telecommunications companies shouldn’t be allowed to ramp up prices or put walls up to digital access without the government being involved. 

Advocates for net neutrality laws include digital rights advocacy groups, the ACLU, and even the inventor of the World Wide Web, arguing that an open market for broadband access is both a requirement for innovation and a free speech issue

What is the United States’ stance on net neutrality? 

Debate between those aligning with providers and those in favor of more government oversight has led to a split among political leaders, with the majority of Republican leadership favoring the former and Democrats the latter. The FCC, made up of presidentially-appointed members that serve five-year terms, tends to lean toward the appointing side. Major providers, like Verizon and Comcast, have taken net neutrality to court — and won.

While the first FCC attempt to instate net neutrality laws happened way back in 2005, the regulations didn’t officially make it onto the books until a decade later, with the support of the ardently pro-net neutrality Obama administration. In a 2014 White House statement, President Barack Obama wrote, “‘Net neutrality’ has been built into the fabric of the Internet since its creation — but it is also a principle that we cannot take for granted. We cannot allow Internet service providers (ISPs) to restrict the best access or to pick winners and losers in the online marketplace for services and ideas.” The Obama administration’s net neutrality agenda, known as the Open Internet Rule, included limits on ISP blocking, throttling, and paid prioritization. 

But the 2015 regulations were repealed by a new Republican-controlled FCC only a year later, under President Donald Trump. At the time, FCC chairman Ajit Pai argued the regulations had a negative impact on innovative internet investment and small providers. “These providers often serve rural and lower-income areas where better internet access and competition are most desperately needed. But they were forced to spend scarce funds on regulatory compliance rather than building out broadband to more Americans,” said Pai. 

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What followed were several years of failed bills to reinstate the Obama era laws, including a bicameral bill, known as the Save the Internet Act of 2019, introduced by Democratic legislators. As federal regulations stalled, states introduced their own net neutrality laws, like California’s 2018 Internet Consumer Protection and Net Neutrality Act.

In a 2021 executive order, President Joe Biden called on the FCC to restore net neutrality rules, as well as require ISPs to report their prices and subscription rates directly to the FCC. Biden also championed the revival of the FCC’s shelved “Broadband Nutrition Label,” a standardized consumer label that would provide basic information about internet services and prices.

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How will the FCC’s decision affect internet users?

A “yes” vote from the FCC would reinstate protections and oversight powers bestowed under the Open Internet Rule. This means federal agencies would once again require ISPs to report speed, pricing, and network management practice; that information would then be made available to customers. 

Notably, Rosenworcel explained it would also provide the FCC with “new national security tools,” which could impact international companies providing equipment and services to ISPs and U.S. customers. Amid growing political fears of foreign state actors online (read: TikTok), that fact could be the bipartisan chip that gets net neutrality back in U.S. law. 

The internet itself wouldn’t immediately change for consumers with the revival of open internet laws, but the downstream effects could be significant to those shopping around for new providers, plans, services, and more.

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