The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) just voted 3-2 to end net neutrality. It's been a topic of hot debate for years, but for many people it raises a simple question: what the heck is net neutrality, anyway?
We've all come to rely on the internet for almost every aspect of our lives — work, communication, shopping, entertainment, even medical advice. With that comes a decades-old debate about how this new frontier should be managed. After all, the internet, like any infrastructure, has a limited capacity, so how should service providers organize and prioritize what information is accessed and by whom?
On the one hand, we have proponents of net neutrality — folks who argue that a free and democratic internet requires equal access, and that unless net neutrality is enforced, telecom providers will seek to sell the fastest traffic to the highest bidder. This would create a situation where companies can ensure "premium" service by simply paying more for it, and forcing subscribers to buy services they would otherwise never want. On the other hand, we have defenders of "free market" principles, suggesting that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) should have the right to decide how they monetize their services.
Net neutrality prevents Internet service providers from speeding up, slowing down, or blocking content and from prioritizing their own content. For example under the law, Comcast (Xfinity) could not run Netflix at a slower speed than Xfinity On Demand.
Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai said repealing the net neutrality "is not going to end the internet as we know it. It is not going to kill democracy. It is not going to stifle free expression online," reports CNN. The federal agency isn't the only group that supports the repeal. Telecom providers do as well, claiming it hinders investments and technological advancements.
However, technology companies like Google are in support of net neutrality. Google even started a "Take Action" campaign. "We believe that consumers should continue open on-ramps to the Internet," Google stated on its campaign. "No Internet access provider should block or degrade Internet traffic, nor should they sell 'fast lane' that prioritize particular Internet services over others. These rules should apply regardless of whether you're accessing the Internet using a cable connection, a wireless service, or any other technology."
Now, advocacy groups are expected to petition Congress to vote on overturning the ruling. Ultimately, the issue of net neutrality could end up in court.
A quick timeline
All this came to a head in 2014 with a D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in favor of Verizon, which was asking for an appeal of the FCC's net neutrality rules, arguing that the agency had overstepped its legal authority. But while the court may have overruled the FCC's authority to issue a blanket prohibition against blocking sites or slowing traffic, it also upheld the agency's right to regulate broadband.
After the ruling, the FCC issued a "notice of proposed rulemaking on internet regulatory structure" and opened a period of public comment on the issue of net neutrality. The agency received 4 million public comments, more than it received on any other issue before. By November 2014, then-President Barack Obama called on the FCC to take up the strongest net neutrality protections possible, which the agency did in February 2015. And in 2016, a federal court of appeals upheld the FCC’s new net neutrality rule.
As Wired reported at the time: "The rules ... ban internet service providers from blocking, slowing down, or otherwise discriminating against lawful content. Without these rules in place, your home internet provider would be free to slow down your Netflix connection to try to keep you paying for cable TV. Your mobile carrier would be allowed to block Skype in order to promote its own voice plan."
In July 2017, the FCC voted to roll back those protections and said it intended to draft a new plan; in the meantime, they agreed not to enforce the current regulations. Their decision led to a so-called "Day of Action," an online protest where mega-companies like Amazon, Expedia, Google, Facebook, Twitter, Netflix, Reddit, Vimeo and thousands of other tech companies showed their support by posting banners, ads, videos and messages for readers on their websites.
Editor's note: This story has been updated with new information since it was originally published in January 2014.