Net neutrality has to be one of the least sexy issues to garner massive public interest in the last few years. The concept is technical and the application thereof is complex, yet comedians at the center of national conversations, like John Oliver, were dedicating massive amounts of air time to discuss it.
There was a huge debate throughout 2014 and 2015, namely centered around whether or not internet service providers (ISPs) — think Comcast, Time Warner, Verizon FiOS, AT&T UVerse, etc. — should be regulated like common carriers (a fancy term for utilities).
Certain industries are deemed so central to the national interest and indispensable to citizens’ lives that the government designates them a public utility or common carrier. These would be things like the power grid/electricity, landline phone service, the railroads, water, etc.
All these networks and systems were absolutely vital to Americans’ lives, so the government regulated them for a number of different reasons. For one, many of these industries require massive capital outlays (like the physical internet network or phone lines or power lines), and so it makes sense for one company to have local or regional monopolies — it’s too expensive for other companies to build duplicate infrastructure, and we as consumers want all the networks to connect and communicate with the others. So, in exchange for allowing local and regional monopolies, the government gets to regulate those providers in consumers’ best interests.
There’s a whole host of other concerns that dictate whether or not something is or ought to be classified as a common carrier. For instance, if the government grants private companies imminent domain for the building of that utility, that is a nudge toward common carrier (for instance, the government helping railroad companies acquire the land necessary to link the country). The more central the good to our lives, the more likely it will be designated as a common carrier (which, I think almost anyone would agree the Internet is beyond necessary to modern life). The level of competition in individual markets also plays into it — cable companies splitting cities and regions such that there’s little to no competition therein is more likely to make the internet into a common carrier.
Well, the debate over whether ISPs were common carriers came to a head in 2015, and at the time, the FCC voted to reclassify ISPs as common carriers. That specifically meant ISPs could not block access to sites, apps or services they did not like (or competed with). ISPs couldn’t charge specific companies more money for access to the network or the ISPs’ customers. And, ISPs couldn’t throttle or limit network speeds to specific users or sites (so, Comcast can’t decide to make Netflix super slow so you’re more likely to watch Comcast’s content on your cable box, on demand).
Now, there is surely a complex issue, and there are legitimate reasons why the FCC might not should have made such a blanket designation to all ISPs. But, regardless of where you fall on the spectrum, it’s worth noting that the landmark 2015 decision is likely to be overturned over the next hours or days.
The new FCC chairman, Ajit Pai, has followed President Trump’s lead when it comes to dismantling Obama-era regulations. Pai called the 2015 decision “heavy-handed” and is making serious moves to roll net neutrality back.
Regardless of where you fall on the issue — and there are truly good arguments to made on both sides of the ball here — it’s worth noting the developments from the FCC so you can act on them. Net neutrality is one of the defining policy issues of our time, and we all love fast internet and the information, apps and stories it brings to our fingertips. So be aware of what’s happening and act if you’re so inclined!