Here’s everything you need to know about net neutrality on the anniversary of its repeal
It’s been a year since the Federal Communications Commission voted to kill net neutrality. But even in death, the FCC’s net neutrality rules continue to make news.
The Obama-era rules, which lasted from 2015 to 2018, banned broadband providers from slowing or blocking access to the internet or charging companies higher fees for faster access. The battle to reinstate open internet protections, however, continues in the courts. Supporters are challenging the FCC’s repeal of the rules, and the FCC is challenging states that pass their own net neutrality regulations.
Behind the clash: The former, Democrat-led FCC reclassified broadband networks to make them subject to the same strict regulations that govern telephone networks. Supporters claim the reclassification was needed to give the rules an underlying legal basis.
The stricter definition provoked a backlash from Republicans, who said the move was clumsy and blunt.
Though the vote to repeal the regulations happened last December, the rules officially went away on June 11. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, appointed by President Donald Trump, had called those rules “heavy-handed” and “a mistake.” He’s also argued the rules deterred innovation because internet service providers had little incentive to improve the broadband network infrastructure. (You can read Pai’s op-ed on CNET here.) Pai took the FCC back to a “light” regulatory approach, pleasing both Republicans and internet service providers.
Supporters of net neutrality say the internet as we know it may not exist much longer without the protections. Big tech companies, such as Google and Facebook, and internet luminaries, such as Tim Berners-Lee, fall in that camp.
Democrats in Congress, who have been fighting all year to restore the 2015 net neutrality rules, say the repeal has opened the door for large broadband and wireless companies to “control people’s online activities.”
“Without the FCC acting as sheriff, it is unfortunately not surprising that big corporations have started exploring ways to change how consumers access the Internet in order to benefit their bottom line,” Reps. Nancy Pelosi of California, Frank Pallone, Jr. of New Jersey, and Mike Doyle of Pennsylvania said in joint opinion piece on CNET.
Now that they control the House of Representatives, the Democrats say they’ll be in a better position next year to restore “strong net neutrality rules.”
If you still don’t feel like you understand what all the hubbub is about, have no fear. We’ve assembled this FAQ to put everything in plain English.
What’s net neutrality again?
Net neutrality is the principle that all traffic on the internet should be treated equally, regardless of whether you’re checking Facebook, posting pictures to Instagram or streaming movies from Netflix or Amazon. It also means companies like AT&T, which bought Time Warner, or Comcast, which owns NBC Universal, can’t favor their own content over a competitor’s.
What were the rules?
Under the Obama administration, the FCC adopted rules in 2015 to protect these principles. The regulation prohibited broadband providers from blocking or slowing traffic and banned them from offering so-called fast lanes to companies willing to pay extra to reach consumers more quickly than competitors. To make sure the rules stood up to court challenges, the agency also put broadband in the same legal classification as the old-style telephone network, which gave the FCC more power to regulate it.
Internet providers said the rules stifled investment, especially the new classification of broadband, which they feared would allow the government to set rates.
Were the 2015 rules ever challenged in court?
As a matter of fact, they were. AT&T as well as a couple of industry groups sued the government, arguing the FCC didn’t have the authority to reclassify broadband. But in 2016, the DC Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the rules, dealing the FCC a significant victory. The ruling essentially made it clear the FCC could regulate broadband. AT&T tried to appeal the decision to the US Supreme Court. And Trump’s Department of Justice urged the court to take the case. But ultimately, the high court rejected the appeal. And that 2016 ruling stands.
What happened to the 2015 rules?
The FCC, led by Pai, voted on Dec. 14, 2017, to repeal the 2015 net neutrality regulations. And in June the rules officially came off the books. This means that today there aren’t rules that prevent broadband providers from slowing or blocking your access to the internet. And there’s nothing to stop these companies from favoring their own services over a competitor’s service.
One of the most significant changes that’s often overlooked is that the FCC’s “Restoring Internet Freedom” order also stripped away the FCC’s authority to regulate broadband, handing it to the Federal Trade Commission.
Does this mean no one will police the internet?
The FTC is the new cop on the beat. It can take action against companies that violate contracts with consumers or that participate in anticompetitive and fraudulent activity.
Is the FTC equipped to make sure broadband companies don’t harm consumers?
The FTC already oversees consumer protection and competition for the whole economy. But this also means the agency is swamped. And because the FTC isn’t focused exclusively on the telecommunications sector, some experts argue that the agency isn’t able to deliver the same kind of scrutiny the FCC would.
More importantly, the FTC also lacks the FCC’s rule-making authority. This means FTC enforcement extends only to companies’ voluntary public commitments or to violations of antitrust law. Unless broadband and wireless carriers commit in writing to basic net neutrality principles, the FTC can only enforce antitrust issues, which must meet a high legal standard.
Also, any action the FTC takes happens after the fact. And investigations of wrongdoing can take years.
What about internet fast lanes?
The repeal of FCC net neutrality regulations removes the ban that keeps a service provider from charging an internet service, like Netflix or YouTube, a fee for delivering its service faster to customers. Net neutrality supporters argue that this especially hurts startups, which can’t afford such fees.
Pai said the ban on paid priority was too restrictive. He wanted to make sure broadband companies could experiment with different business models, such as offering zero-rated deals, which let companies give away content for free without it counting against a customer’s monthly data cap. Another potential business model would involve a broadband provider giving priority to a medical application or to services like those enabling self-driving cars.
Are any of the old rules still in place?
The one rule that was spared is the so-called “transparency rule,” which requires broadband providers to disclose how they manage their networks. The FCC now requires service providers to commit to disclosing when and under what circumstances they block or slow traffic, as well as if and when they offer paid priority services.
What are the states doing?
Attorneys general in 22 states and the District of Columbia have joined pro net neutrality consumer groups and Firefox publisher Mozilla in suing the FCC in federal court to reverse the FCC’s move.
There are also a number of states, such as California and Washington, that have passed their own laws governing an open internet. Several other states, like New York, are considering similar legislation.
California’s law is based on the 2015 protections, but it goes further. It also outlaws some zero-rating offers, such as AT&T’s, which exempts its own streaming services from its wireless customers’ data caps. The law also applies the net neutrality rules to so-called “interconnection” deals between network operators, something the FCC’s 2015 rules didn’t explicitly do…..Read More>>>