I am a former legal assistant who puts on my legal hat from time to time to examine and tackle complicated issues.
This article is not meant to be an all-encompassing explanation, but a simplified look at net neutrality. I sifted through the associated laws and perspectives to bring you what I felt were the most important pieces of information in order to give you a basic understanding of the issue. This article contains a lot of information, and I don't blame you if you skip ahead to the latter sections. Let me know if you have any questions.
What Is Net Neutrality?
Net neutrality means that you have the freedom to explore any website on a private server, provided that it doesn't break any laws. In addition, net neutrality prevents large communication providers like Comcast or AT&T from doing things like blocking content and moderating posts they don't agree with. Aside from most workplace and library internet policies, we have net neutrality in the United States.
The internet is governed by the FCC, or Federal Communications Commission. For a look at the issues concerning net neutrality, let's refer to the Communications Act of 1934.
Communications Act of 1934
Picture this: when this law was written, our country was in the middle of the Great Depression, Hitler was starting to become a problem, and fascism was spreading in Italy.
At the time, communications technology consisted of radio, wire, and telephone. President Franklin D. Roosevelt wanted to form one agency to regulate these communications—this became the Federal Communications Commission. The Communications Act of 1934 discusses the formation of this new entity.
In terms of net neutrality, the arguably most important part of this act was Title II. Title II defines what a "common carrier" is—basically any business that provides a public service without "unreasonable discrimination in charges, practices, classifications, regulations, facilities, or services for or in connection with like communication service, directly or indirectly, by any means or device." Discrimination is defined as giving "any undue or unreasonable preference or advantage [or disadvantage] to any particular person, class of persons, or locality, or to subject any particular person, class of persons, or locality."
So basically, everybody should have the same service and you can't give anybody preferential treatment, because preferential treatment would not serve the public as a whole (my paraphrasing). It goes on to state that if a common carrier defies the discrimination piece, there would be fines imposed. Seems simple enough, right?
Telecommunications Act of 1996
Let's fast-forward to 1996.
A lot had changed. Saddam Hussein was still alive, Boris Yeltsin was negotiating a ceasefire, and the Irish Republican Army had ended theirs. Eek.
By then, the internet was getting big, along with cable television, and as a result, the Communications Act of 1934 needed an overhaul. President Bill Clinton removed red tape to encourage more competition, added a consumer protection piece to prevent unfair billing practices, and changed the previously all-encompassing definition of "common or telecommunications carrier" or "telecommunications service" to "information service" when it came to providing internet access.
This is important, because "information service" is referred to in the law as "the offering of a capability for generating, acquiring, storing, transforming, processing, retrieving, utilizing, or making available information via telecommunications, and includes electronic publishing, but does not include any use of any such capability for the management, control, or operation of a telecommunications system or the management of a telecommunications service." In other words, telecommunications service and information service are considered to be completely separate from each other. Rules from Title II, like the non-discrimination part did not apply to internet providers, also known as information services.
This Video Helps to Explain Net Neutrality at About the 1:57 Mark Until About the 8:38 Mark
Open Internet Principles 2005
In 2005, the Federal Communications Commission sought to clarify its position on "information services" and developed four "open internet" principles:
- "To encourage broadband deployment and preserve and promote the open and interconnected nature of the public internet, consumers are entitled to access the lawful Internet content of their choice."
- "To encourage broadband deployment and preserve and promote the open and interconnected nature of the public internet, consumers are entitled to run applications and use services of their choice, subject to the needs of law enforcement."
- "To encourage broadband deployment and preserve and promote the open and interconnected nature of the public internet, consumers are entitled to connect their choice of legal devices that do not harm the network."
- "To encourage broadband deployment and preserve and promote the open and interconnected nature of the public internet, consumers are entitled to competition among network providers, application and service providers, and content providers."
My interpretation of these principles is that the internet should be open and public, the customers should be able to choose their internet provider, use the internet within the law, and be entitled to competition within the internet providers. These principles are the foundation of net neutrality.
Open Internet Order of 2010
2010 brought more "rules of the road," while dividing "information services" into "Fixed Broadband Service Providers" and "Wireless/Mobile Broadband [Networks]." Examples of the latter include: AT&T and Google.
For Fixed Broadband Service Providers, i.e. Hoosier Broadband and Florida High Speed Internet:
- Disclosure Rule: That providers must "publicly disclose accurate information regarding the network management practices, performance, and commercial terms of its broadband Internet access services" so that consumers can make the best decisions with the most accurate information. Unfortunately, although the rule makes suggestions on what should be included, it leaves a lot of interpretation and wiggle-room to the providers. My question is: how would the Commission follow-up on a rule where the content is not clearly defined? (Sigh.)
- No Blocking Rule: Basically, you cannot be blocked from any website that is lawful. This also meant that no blocking should occur, [nor] "impairing or degrading" "lawful content so as to render the content unusable, subject to reasonable network management...slowing down the speed at which the video is delivered to the end user may make the video unwatchable or otherwise disrupt the experience...however, the rule is subject to reasonable network management. As an example, at times of high volume of Internet traffic, in order to allow all of their customers to have Internet access in a given area, the broadband provider may find it necessary to slow the delivery of online products such as streaming video. Such slowing, when necessary as a management tool, likely would not be considered to be a violation of the no blocking rule, according to the Commission."
- No Unreasonable Discrimination Rule: That access providers cannot only allow you to see internet content that the internet providers have affiliations with or that they agree with, although "reasonable network management shall not constitute unreasonable discrimination." "Reasonable network management" meant that the network provider would be transparent when there was an affiliation and between providers. Additionally, the law did not specifically state that these providers could not have "tiered levels of service, where heavy internet users could pay more for faster speeds, and lighter users might pay less. However, the Commission agreed that if a provider like Netflix, for example, paid AT&T to "favor their traffic over other traffic," known as a "pay for priority" agreements, this may violate the unreasonable discrimination rule.
- Reasonable Network Management Rule: Clarifying what activities the Commission deemed to be reasonable during the course of business, including "but...not limited to, ensuring network security and integrity, addressing traffic that is unwanted by end users, and reducing or mitigating the effects of congestion on the network."
For Wireless/Mobile Broadband Networks, i.e. AT&T and Google. Please note that the Commission only applied two rules for this section as "mobile broadband [was] in at an earlier stage of development" at the time.
- Disclosure: Similarly to the Fixed Broadband Service Providers, if they have affiliations, they must disclose them.
- No Blocking Rule: Again, that consumers should not be blocked from lawful websites, from websites that the network may not agree with, nor "applications that compete with the provider’s voice or video telephony services, subject to reasonable network management," such as Skype.
Open Internet Order of 2015
If you recall, up until this point in 2015, the Federal Communications Commission had separated "Fixed Broadband System Providers" and "Wireless/Mobile Broadband [Networks] into "information systems," which had looser rules than "common or telecommunications carrier" or "telecommunications service." In fact, there were gaps where companies could work around the law.
In early 2015, internet services were finally reclassified from "information systems" to "telecommunications service." This meant that the rules from Title II finally applied and the internet would be considered a "public utility." Although this was a big step towards preserving net neutrality, it wasn't fool-proof. According to the Federal Communications Commission, “The record reflects that broadband providers hold all the tools necessary to deceive consumers, degrade content, or disfavor the content that they don’t like.” In other words, the providers still had the capability to do these things.
The internet providers weren't happy. They felt this was a government overreach and violated the free market. The supporters felt this was a Freedom of Speech issue.
One of the Commissioners at the Federal Communications Commission who voted against net neutrality was Ajit Pai. You may recognize him now as the Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. Chairman Pai wants to overturn net neutrality because he argues that it "disincentivizes companies" from going into lower income areas, and that it has reduced investment in the internet, which has reduced competition.
It is worthy to note that he was an attorney at Verizon Communications for a bit. Even though I would hate to think that is his motivation, I feel compelled to mention that because Verizon is one of the top Wireless/Mobile Broadband Networks.
What Would Happen Without Net Neutrality?
Without net neutrality, here's what you could expect:
- The internet services you now use, such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Netflix, Amazon, video games, email, etc. may be divided up and classified as "extra services," meaning that consumers would pay per program a la carte. This is how the internet runs in countries like Portugal and Spain, which do not have net neutrality. The cable companies have done some of this already, forcing us to buy packages when we don't want some of the channels. Also, who wants to pay $5/month extra for these internet services that are free? Even if someone just wants email, that's an extra $60 yearly. Yikes.
- But wait, there's more! With the above rules pretty much out the window, what's to stop companies from charging extra for a "fast" or "slow" lane, which is a real thing that's being discussed. That means that if you owned a small business and were relying on a "slow" lane internet to cut costs, this may affect your other costs. How? Imagine that you paid someone to upload pictures to your website, for example. The connection could slow this down and cause your employee to take longer uploading pictures. What if someone had a customer service complaint with an established customer and your internet is slow? They are used to a instant response, but you don't get your emails that fast? Or, if it takes forever to click on a product and view the picture? Customers may get frustrated and find somewhere else to shop.
- We use the internet for everything else, including important things like applying for jobs and signing up for healthcare. What if the people with the "fast" lane option (who are presumably wealthier people that can afford it) get first pick for health care and jobs? (Of course, the argument could be made that wealthy people probably don't need to sign up for health care, but in this case, let's imagine they do.) If "fast" lane people always get the first chance, how is anyone else going to be able to catch up? They wouldn't. This would further accentuate our class gap in America.
- While we're at it, there would be no rule to dictate about free websites anymore. Imagine the small businesses (including Etsy), bloggers, fan pages, non-profit organizations, etc. who have used a free or low-cost website in the past and are now faced with an unplanned extra charge.
- A scarier question: would some of these big companies charge high fees to discourage competitors who might be taking up their traffic or their affiliates' traffic? If that is the case, it would be basically one big advertisement for the companies and it would take additional legislation to iron this out. Legislation also means that these big companies could lobby with their big money and push for laws that benefit them. I think the internet would start to look like our health care system: the (insurance) companies get to dictate the prices with no caps and the people are stuck. (By the way, do we EVER see that clearing up in our lifetimes?)
- Since we're talking about company takeover of the internet, where would the rules about Freedom of Speech factor into this? How would we be able to post whatever we want without the big, bad companies blocking or removing any material that they don't agree with. If you don't think this is possible, check out Verizon's lawsuit against the Federal Communications Commission in 2011. Verizon's argument was "that it has a First Amendment right to decide what traffic to carry on its network just as a newspaper editor chooses what articles to publish." The last time I checked, Verizon is not a person. If this could be the case, what would stop companies from blocking certain websites they don't agree with? Where would their reach end?
On the Flip Side...
Would a lack of net neutrality make prices more competitive for consumers?
Not exactly. In fact, my research shows that you would actually pay for what you used, instead of the all-encompassing price you pay each month for internet. I also couldn't find any research indicating that the prices would lower or stabilize for consumers--mostly that they would raise or split into pieces at the companies' own discretion.
Opponents say that internet providers pay more taxes and are subject to tougher regulations under the "telecommunications services" designation. One particular argument has to do with traffic. If traffic on certain websites consume more bandwidth than other websites, who pays for that? Some say that websites with high bandwidth should.
Opponents against net neutrality also argue that the government is inefficient, and that much of what is heavily regulated now, like the police, the post office, and infrastructure (crumbling bridges, anyone?) are examples of that. Their fear is also that the government will use similar wire-tapping tactics to spy on consumers. They would rather leave it up to the free market, asserting that this would drive up internet investment. I looked up statistics on internet investment to see if it had fallen or risen, but found mixed results, and most websites had obvious bias.
Would there be any other benefits? During my research, I really couldn't find any other benefits for lack of net neutrality that weren't geared towards business in some way.
To complicate matters, there have been allegations that some of the larger companies like AT&T and Verizon receiving over $400 billion in public subsidies to fund fiber optics that may or may not have come to fruition. I could not find another source to substantiate this, but if this is true, it would be important for consumers to know that private companies may be benefitting from public funding and still gouging them. (Comcast, I'm looking at you.)
What This Means For You
Alright, folks. We've seen what happens when companies for the public are privatized. My favorite example is our current health care system, which relies heavily on private insurance companies. These same insurance companies have the opportunity to make prices competitive and fair for consumers, but they choose not to. Some for-profit companies just can't behave themselves.
This is what could happen to consumers and small business owners again if net neutrality is removed. You have to ask yourself: do I want an internet that may have current/future government regulation in store, where freedom of speech is generally abided by, that I am not billed separately and extra for, and that puts me on the same playing field as everyone else?
Or, would you like an internet that is more big business-friendly? One that has less regulation for businesses, one where the government is less involved, and where people pay for what they actually use?
The choice is up to you. Use the force.
My Two Cents
Obviously, you can probably tell which side of the fence I stand on when it comes to net neutrality, but I tried to be as "neutral" (pun intended), and as non-partisan as possible for the research above.
During the research for this topic, I was disappointed to discover little information on the actual subject of net neutrality, and anything that was posted in articles or on the Federal Communications Commission website did not present the whole picture, was convoluted, or obviously biased. I personally think this was done to mislead the public so that we wouldn't grasp what is truly going on. Everything can sound nice in big, flashy marketing jargon, (which is what I found) but until somebody digs a bit deeper, we are none the wiser. Because we use the internet every single day, every one of us would be affected by legislation on net neutrality. This topic is incredibly important.
If I can ask anything of you today, please continue to ask questions on anything that does not make sense—we obviously have a lot that we still need to question/challenge our government on. Please keep your eyes open.
- Federal Communications Commission (FCC 05-151)
- Federal Communications Commission (FCC 10-201)
- Federal Communications Commission (FCC 15-24)
- 7 Reasons Net Neutrality is Idiotic (Note: Unfortunately I couldn't find a similar article that was non-partisan.)
- Net Neutrality: The FCC's Authority to Regulate Broadband Internet Traffic Management
- Am I the Only Techie Against Net Neutrality?
- The Book of Broken Promises: $400 Billion Broadband Scandal and Free the Net. (Note: I could not find another source to substantiate this.)
- 18 of the Most Powerful Wireless Networking Companies
- FCC Approves Net Neutrality Rules for "Open Internet."
- FCC Sets Net Neutrality Rules
- The Internet is Dying. Repealing Net Neutrality Hastens That Death
- FCC Chair Ajit Pai Explains Why he Wants to Scrap Net Neutrality
- Democrats Troubled by Verizon's Free Speech Argument in Net Neutrality Case (Note: Again, I couldn't find a similar article that was nonpartisan.)
- Communications Act of 1934
- Federal Communications Commission
© 2017 Lauren Sutton