Confused by net neutrality? What you need to know

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

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.

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. 

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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Comments (10)

  1. Submitted by Gerald Abrahamson on 05/20/2014 - 11:10 am.

    Free speech requires net neutrality.

    There is no purpose having free speech if no one is allowed to hear what you say. That is the rationale behind the subject line.

    Having net neutrality allows the public to decide to whom they wish to listen. NOT having net neutrality means the public can only listen to those who are allowed on the network (“no pay = no access”). If the network does not allow access to certain speakers, those speakers have been denied their free speech rights.

    “1984” all over again….

  2. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 05/20/2014 - 12:25 pm.

    This is about more government control

    Where are the examples? What’s the price difference between the “fast lane” and the “slow lane” the big government types are warning us about? Any ideas?

    Which websites will have a slower connection than others? Any examples? And what speed are we considering “slow?”

    Do you want your streaming movie provider to be able to offer a faster option or not?

    The question is simple. Who do you want controlling the internet, the government or the marketplace?

    It’s no surprise that both Franken and Ellison favor more government regulation over the market.

    • Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 05/20/2014 - 01:47 pm.

      Internet like the highway

      Let’s not forget who paid to have the “Internet” created: it was the US taxpayer through the ARPANET and other defense related projects which created the technology and ideas for the internet. Left to the “marketplace”, we’d still be using computers as wordprocessers and maybe with private isolated corporate and government networks. The “Internet” is the superhighway created under government leadership and funding, including the FCC which allowed the development of computer technology to develop outside of “common carrier” regulation and indeed to restrict “common carriers” like AT&T, the Baby Bells, like Verizon and Quest (now CenturyLink) from using their dominant positions as monopoly carriers to destroy competition in this emerging technology area.

      The time has come to rescind those old policies as anachronisms now that AT&T, Verizon, CenturyLink and others, already regulated as “common carriers”, should be regulated as such to the extent they have taken over this sector of the computer/communications business. The time has also come to bring cable TV monopolies, like Comcast, under the umbrella of “common carrier” regulation to restrict the power these monopolies have to destroy the marketplace when it comes to Internet service. These firms all control access to homes and businesses by virtue of rights to occupy public highways, and streets and the right to exercise eminent domain.

      There’s no excuse for the FCC’s foot dragging on extending “common carrier” regulation to these firms. The Court of Appeals which struck down the earlier FCC “net neutrality rules” made it quite clear that was the only way “net neutrality” was going to be legal under current law. So the FCC has recognized the problem and proposed regulations but is refusing to adopt a legal basis for the regulation which is logically found in its authority to regulate common carriers. This article about “net neutrality” is quite good, leaving to the reader to ask: “What factor not mentioned in the article could there possibly be preventing FCC members from adopting the most legal and practical method of ensuring net neutrality?”

    • Submitted by Jim Young on 05/20/2014 - 02:32 pm.

      Examples of non-net neutrality

      Dennis – check with your friend Mr. Google and have him do a search on “bit torrent comcast slow” Then you can read all about how in 2007 Comcast picked out Bit Torrent users to slow them down. They did this without ever disclosing they were doing it or why they had done it. They were “outed” by a few users who spent a lot of time researching what was happening and why. After the reports were made public, at first Comcast denied doing it though eventually they did admit what they had done.

      Given that Comcast’s main business is cable TV, it doesn’t take much imagination to see lots of possibilities for what they might try do to hinder internet competitors to their cable TV income stream. So, in answer to your simple question, do I want Comcast controlling what I can access on the internet my answer is – GOOD GOD, NO! (that’s intentional shouting.)

    • Submitted by jason myron on 05/21/2014 - 06:43 am.

      Sure Dennis….

      the “marketplace” always has our best interest at heart. Yes, I want government to regulate pricing on the net. I KNOW what will happen when the “free market.” has the ability to hose me on price.

      • Submitted by Dennis Tester on 05/21/2014 - 07:24 am.

        You people don’t get it

        YOU’RE the market. What choices YOU make are the market forces that create change and control which products and services succeed and fail. I guess they don’t teach econ in small town MN anymore.

        • Submitted by Gerald Abrahamson on 05/21/2014 - 08:45 am.

          Profits first–remember?

          The buyer can only choose from the available options presented. If you need water, you can choose tap water or the many various bottled waters available to you. You do NOT have the option of buying from a supplier in China (because it is NOT available to you as an option to buy). Why? Because the providers do not offer it. Same problem exists with cable ISPs. They exist to MAKE A PROFIT. Their choice is to offer you X or Y. Which do you want? You can choose–between X or Y. Free market? Other ISPs offer Z, A, B, and many more. You get to choose between X or Y. Why? Because X and Y both paid the cable company and excluded all other choices on that system. How do you get B?

        • Submitted by Jon Lord on 05/21/2014 - 09:40 am.

          As you say

          As ‘the market’ we should choose net neutrality. Equal access. Free speech. Equal rights.

          Combine the rights of a Corporation as a person with the rights of all people. In doing so, no person has the right to abridge any other persons rights to equal free speech. We may not agree with what another person has to say but we (and the corporations as individual people) shouldn’t be able to stifle them. Disagree yes, we can tune them out, or freely tell them what we believe and they can tune us out if they want to. For instance, if one doesn’t like what Pat Robertson says, they don’t have to listen. But he has the right to say what he wants to. No ‘person’ can abridge that right. (Or shouldn’t be able to).

        • Submitted by jason myron on 05/21/2014 - 01:57 pm.

          I get it just fine…

          what YOU don’t get is, like cable companies, most people have no choice in their ISP.

  3. Submitted by faizan ali on 05/21/2014 - 07:25 am.

    what is net neutrality

    Net Neutrality in less than 60 Seconds http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FSbPZ3WpnKc

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