On Tuesday, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) announced a plan to revoke net neutrality.
What's net neutrality? Imagine all the sites you like only load
... unless they pay your internet service provider extra.
Right now, internet service providers (ISPs) like Verizon and Comcast have to treat all information online equally, no matter where it comes from. Soon that won't be true.
Why is it important?
The new rules put forward by the FCC—now led by Trump appointee Ajit Pai—would allow ISPs charge content creators for access to faster delivery, or "online fast lanes."
This would meaningfully restructure the rules of today's internet. Back in 2015, the FCC under President Obama put in force rules to protect net neutrality by classifying high speed internet as a public utility. As a utility, the commission ruled, it had to be equally accessible for all Americans.
Since then, the issue has become increasingly polarized along party lines. In general, Democratic legislators support strong net neutrality rules while Republicans do not. Since Republicans outnumber Democrats on the commission 3 to 2, the new proposal is expected to pass when it goes to a vote on December 14th.
Should the internet be treated as a public utility?
We all want an innovative, open internet. By lumping the internet into the same legal categories as a public utility—specifically, in this case, as a telecommunications service—we're actually moving in the opposite direction.
Since the Telecommunications Act of 1996, there have been two important categories the FCC oversees in this area: telecommunications services and information services. Until 2015, the internet was classified as an information service, protecting it from regulations that might stifle innovation.
In order to graft net neutrality rules onto the already-thriving internet, the FCC had to reclassify the internet as a telecommunications service, which includes public utilities like telephone companies and can be much more tightly regulated.
That was a mistake. There are many outdated and convoluted regulations meant for the telephone industry that no reasonable person would want to apply to the internet—about rates, billing, reporting, and much more. Exposure to these rules has understandably decreased investment in some areas of online infrastructure, like the 22 ISPs that told the FCC net neutrality decreased funding.
FCC Chairman Ajit Pai is correct: "Title II is not the same as an open internet. In fact, [these net neutrality rules] take us in the opposite direction by inhibiting competition, reducing investment in infrastructure."
The FCC is now suggesting a reasonable, moderate approach. "We’re not saying the choice is either Title II [the 2015 rules] or the Wild West. It’s that light-touch regulation, the middle ground, so to speak, that we’re looking to return to."
Net neutrality is free speech on the internet, plain and simple. It is the bedrock of an innovative internet economy.
The internet thrives precisely because of net neutrality. An internet without net neutrality would inevitably become like cable TV—the content you see is what your provider puts in front of you.
Can you imagine if Mark Zuckerberg, setting out to create Facebook, had to pay Verizon to support his site? Net neutrality is what makes it possible for digital companies to compete with established businesses, keeping barriers to entry low. It has supported the growth of the most important companies of the last decade: Google, Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, and more.
The claim that net neutrality dampens investment in internet infrastructure just isn't correct. Investment in broadband was 5% higher in the years after the FCC instituted net neutrality rules.
As Mark Zuckerberg himself now put it, "if a service provider can block you from seeing certain content or can make you pay extra for it, that hurts all of us and we should have rules against it." Verizon went even further, encouraging "people coming together to urge Congress to pass net neutrality legislation once and for all."
Tim Wu, the Columbia professor who coined the term net neutrality in 2003, makes the key point about free speech online: "If making yourself heard depends upon some medium, and upon that medium is built an industry restricting access to it, there is no free market for speech."
Only two years ago, the FCC classified high speed internet as a public utility. Do you believe that's any less true today?
- The 2015 New York Times explanation of net neutrality rules
- "The agency’s order reclassifies high-speed Internet as a telecommunications service rather than an information one, subjecting providers to regulation under Title II of the Communications Act. Its aim is to protect the open Internet, advancing principles of so-called net neutrality by prohibiting broadband providers from elevating one kind of content over another."
- FCC Chairman Ajit Pai's speech on the future of internet regulation
- "We are proposing to return the classification of broadband service from a Title II telecommunications service to a Title I information service—that is, light-touch regulation drawn from the Clinton Administration. As I mentioned earlier, this Title I classification was expressly upheld by the Supreme Court in 2005, and it’s more consistent with the facts and the law."