June 11, 2018, marked the end of net neutrality, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) policy that had since 2010 required internet service providers (ISPs) to deliver content at the same speed regardless of its source.
In practice, among other things that meant The Walt Disney Company couldn't pay extra for better download speed, and your nephew's blog wouldn't get lousy delivery because he couldn't pay a premium. And, your ISP couldn't slow down your service unless you pay to upgrade to the "premium" best delivery speed.
- The issue of net neutrality was settled in mid-2018. The FCC abolished rules that prohibited ISPs from charging businesses or consumers differently for better (or worse) internet delivery speeds.
- Is net neutrality dead? Not so fast.
- Some states are considering rules of their own, but action in the U.S. Congress has stalled.
The change eliminating net neutrality was decided by an FCC vote after Chairman Ajit Pai pushed for a significant reduction in government oversight of internet providers.
Now that it's gone, it's important to understand what net neutrality is or was, how we got here, and what could be next.
The Obama administration advocated for a continuation of net neutrality, the FCC rules in place since 2010 that required companies like Verizon Communications Inc. (VZ) and Comcast Corp. (CMCSA) to handle all content on their networks in an equal fashion, regardless of whether it was a video on a personal blog, a streaming service like Spotify, or a government website.
What the Rules Prevented
More specifically, net neutrality rules prevented:
- Throttling or slowing down the delivery of some websites or online services
- Preferential treatment, better service, or faster service for companies or consumers who paid higher premiums to service providers
In January 2015, under then-chairman Tom Wheeler, the FCC proposed new rules for internet traffic that would allow broadband providers to charge companies like Netflix Inc. (NFLX) and Google Inc. (GOOG) a higher rate to deliver content via the speediest lanes.
Enter John Oliver
Wheeler was a former lobbyist for the cable television industry, which some argued could benefit greatly if new rules were created to allow internet service providers to treat data differently for different clients or customers.
Before the initial policy decision on Feb. 26, 2015, HBO’s John Oliver became an unofficial pro-net neutrality spokesman and goosed Wheeler over the issue on more than one occasion.
The Arguments for Net Neutrality
The end of net neutrality will spawn the beginning of net inequality, Oliver and others said.
Broadband providers, many of which also offer cable TV services, would be able to charge premiums for an indispensable service for businesses—fast internet service. The providers would be able to selectively pick which companies get access to high-speed internet and how much they should pay, which could be devastating for the streaming industry.
The Legal Fight
Oliver certainly focused the public’s attention on a difficult-to-understand legal fight. During the first round of debates in 2015, the public filed more than 120,000 comments on the issue of “Protecting and Promoting the Open Internet”. That staggering number is almost ten times the next most-commented issue at the time. The FCC site actually crashed after the John Oliver episode aired.
Many of the comments expressed outrage that the FCC would permit a new era of tiered internet service. Consumers and businesses feared that the internet would become a segregated landscape in which some content would be delivered at full speed while others would work more slowly because their owners couldn't pay the premiums for the biggest bandwidth.
Many social media users noted that in countries without net neutrality, people have to pay packages for different types of internet. The practical effect is that a consumer who wants to stream video has to pay for a more expensive package than a consumer who just visit websites.
The Fight Continues
It seemed that the issue was put to rest in 2015 when the regulations that restricted broadband providers from blocking content, slowing down specific services or applications, and receiving payments for favorable treatment stayed in place. The net neutrality advocates had won.
Then, in November 2016, Donald Trump was elected president, and he installed Pai as the new head of the FCC.
Rolling Back Regulation
Pai had warned against net neutrality in 2015, arguing in a speech, "It’s basic economics. The more heavily you regulate something, the less of it you’re likely to get." He said that the purpose of the roll-back of policy is to "restore internet freedom," according to the accompanying press release.
After becoming the new FCC head in January 2017, Pai continued to argue that high-speed internet service should not be treated as a public utility and that the industry should police itself instead of being regulated by the government. With that, the same conflict that was put to rest in 2015 began once again.
More than 70,000 websites and organizations–including Google, Facebook, IAC, and, surprisingly, AT&T–joined a protest called the "Day of Action" on July 12, 2017. On that day, websites published alerts encouraging users to send letters to the FCC urging it to keep net neutrality.
On Dec. 12, 2017, many web-based companies such as Reddit, Etsy, and Kickstarter, posted protests to the FCC's imminent vote on their websites.
Still, the FCC voted to repeal net neutrality on Dec. 14, 2018 vote. The measure took effect on June 11, 2018.
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More than two years later, the decision to abolish net neutrality rules still stands, but not without controversy. The FCC's decision might not be the final say.
In 2018, the Senate voted to overturn the repeal of net neutrality but the resolution stalled in the House. It's effectively dead in the water, at least until 2021.
A federal appeals court ruling in October 2019 largely upheld the vote to abolish net neutrality.
At least 20 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico have bills under consideration reestablishing parts of net neutrality, particularly those that affect the use of private information by ISPs.
Barriers to Change
Any substantial change, even at the state law, could be tough to implement. The FCC has said that states cannot pass laws inconsistent with federal net neutrality rules, and only the FCC has the authority to write these types of regulations.
Meanwhile, a federal appeals court ruling in October 2019 largely upheld the decision to abolish net neutrality but ordered the FCC to examine its affect on public safety, federally subsidized broadband services, and utility pole regulations. That led to a new flood of responses from pro-net neutrality groups, but no policy changes as of late 2020.