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.
The debate ended in June 2018, when net neutrality officially ended after Congress voted to repeal it in 2017 — but it's not quite over yet.
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?
For many people it raises a simple question: what the heck is net neutrality, anyway?
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.
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.
In 2017, 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," reported 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."
Will net neutrality be restored once again?
On March 6, 2019, Democrats, led by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, introduced the Save the Internet Act before Congress.
The bill's focus is to enact "the three legacy net neutrality principles — no blocking, no throttling and no paid prioritization — and empowers the FCC to prohibit unjust, unreasonable and discriminatory practices. The legislation also ensures consumers can make informed decisions when shopping for internet plans and restores the FCC’s authority to fund broadband access and deployment, particularly for rural communities and struggling Americans."
Pai's office was quick with a rebuttal. Tina Pelkey, Pai's spokeswoman, issued the following statement — saying that the 2017 repeal was a "light touch."
The FCC’s return in 2017 to the bipartisan, light-touch approach to Internet regulation has been a success. This time-tested framework has preserved the free and open Internet. It has promoted transparency in order to better inform consumer choice. It has unleashed private investment, resulting in more fiber being deployed in 2018 than any year before and download speeds increasing by an astounding 36%. And it has proven wrong the many hysterical predictions of doom from 2017, most notably the fantasy that market-based regulation would bring about ‘the end of the Internet as we know it.’ The Internet in America today is free and vibrant, and the main thing it needs to be saved from is heavy-handed regulation from the 1930s.”
But it appears not everyone at the FCC agrees with Pai.
FCC Commissioner Geoffrey Starks supports a return to net neutrality. "I continue to believe that the FCC’s 2015 Net Neutrality rules were the right approach and the bill introduced today takes us back in that direction — a direction that will empower the FCC to keep the internet open as a gateway to opportunity for students, job seekers, consumers, creators and businesses. They and everyone need, deserve and expect unfettered access to the internet."
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.
In December 2017, the FCC voted along party lines 3-2 to end net neutrality.
Two months after net neutrality ended, 22 state attorney generals and Washington D.C. filed a suit in August 2018 requesting that a federal appeals court reinstate net neutrality.
Editor's note: This story has been updated with new information since it was originally published in January 2014.