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Confused by net neutrality? What you need to know

WASHINGTON — Whether you like it or not, the next few months are going to be a crash course in net neutrality.

Net neutrality is, simply, the idea that all content should be treated the same by the Internet providers who carry it to consumers.
REUTERS/Osman Orsal

What is net neutrality?

Net neutrality is, simply, the idea that all content should be treated the same by the Internet providers who carry it to consumers. Comcast Xfinity should deliver your personal website to its readers as quickly as it does videos on YouTube — providers can’t favor certain types of content over others, for one reason or another, and they can’t restrict access to content, either.

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There are two main concerns net neutrality is designed to alleviate, University of Minnesota information law professor Bill McGeveran said.

Competition is one. If an Internet provider charges content companies for access to a “fast lane” designed to speed up content delivery, those companies have a leg up on their competitors who can’t — or won’t — pay for the same thing. The concern is that it could stifle innovation by locking out up-and-coming companies who can’t afford a fast lane, and whose content is delivered more slowly accordingly. This concept of a fast line is at the heart of the current debate over net neutrality.

(Here’s a New York Times video that visualizes fast lanes.)

The second concern is over free speech. Net neutrality rules are designed to prevent service providers from discriminating against websites or content that they might object to, and giving equal access to messages both big and small — a community or a church website should theoretically travel at the same speed as CBS News or Facebook. Franken, for one,  has called net neutrality “the free speech issue of our time.” 

What has the government done about it?

Net neutrality isn’t a new idea, McGeveran said, but it wasn’t one that needed to be verbalized until relatively recently. When the Internet was just beginning to grow, there was plenty of bandwidth for all types of content to share. But with the rising number of high-bandwidth streaming video services (Netflix and YouTube alone account for half of all North American Internet traffic), as well as increasingly sophisticated online scams like phishing and spam, “there has been more interest in whether there should be different types of arrangements for different types of content,” McGeveran said.

The Federal Communications Commission has twice tried to issue rules mandating cable and DSL Internet providers abide by net neutrality, most recently in 2010. 

Verizon immediately challenged those rules in court, and in January, a U.S. Court of Appeals ruled the FCC can’t regulate Internet providers as stringently as it wants because of the way the FCC classifies them.

Since the FCC doesn’t consider Internet providers “common carriers” — or utilities that are regulated so as to treat all consumers equally, like phone companies — the court said it can’t institute rules as that governs them as such. That includes its net neutrality rules.

What are the options now?

Since the ruling, the FCC has had basically two options. 

First the commission could decide to reclassify Internet providers as common carriers, which would make them subject to stiffer regulations. That’s what Rep. Keith Ellison’s Progressive Caucus suggested in a letter to the FCC last week, and it’s one of the options the FCC is considering during this public comment phase. 

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But that would create its own set of problems. First, common carriers are subject to more rigorous regulations than Internet providers are used to, so it would certainly go further than what the they consider fair (they said as much in a letter of their own last week), and possibly even surpass what net-neutrality advocates think of as reasonable regulation, McGeveran said. This move would mean more legal action, and if the courts upheld reclassification, it could potentially lead to a host of new problems for Internet users (as Vox describes here). 

On the other hand, the FCC could do what Wheeler is proposing now: scale back its current open Internet rules to abide by the court’s ruling, which could mean allowing service providers to establish paid fast lanes, albeit overseen by government regulators (here’s an April blog post from Wheeler describing his plan).

“The court puts them in the bind where they either have to have rules that have less bite to them, or they have to have pretty dramatic power, which itself would cause challenges,” McGeveran said.

Could Congress step in?

Yes, but it’s unlikely to do so.

Technically, Congress could task the FCC with defining Internet providers a certain way and craft rules governing them as such. But if that was ever a serious option, Internet providers who flex their sizable lobbying muscle to prevent it. 

And, regardless of lobbying, there’s an ideological divide here anyway. Recently, Republicans  — on the FCC board itself and in Congress — have resisted regulating the Internet. Last week, four top House Republicans wrote a letter to the FCC warning against increased regulations.

Who’s saying what about this?

Consumer-rights and technology groups have opposed the move, and progressive lawmakers and interest groups are incensed about the proposed rules. Franken, for one, has taken an aggressive stance against it, warning about what might become of the Internet if the new rules kicked in. 

Hundreds of Silicon Valley content companies (think Netflix, Google and Facebook) support stronger net-neutrality rules. And while the Internet providers themselves are generally opposed to net neutrality, some have said they’re willing to follow the rules, at least in the short term, and with pretty significant sweeteners: Comcast said it would uphold the principles of net neutrality when it bought NBC-Universal in 2010, and AT&T said it would abide by net neutrality as well — if regulators approve its purchase of DirecTV, and only for three years. 

What happens next?

The public comment period is open now through mid-September, and more than 30,000 people have commented already, as of Tuesday. If you’re so inclined, here’s the form (be warned: all comments are public). The FCC will make its final decision sometime this fall.

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