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Net neutrality is the principle that individuals should be free to access all content and applications equally, regardless of the source, without Internet service providers discriminating against specific online services or websites. In other words, it is the principle that the company that connects you to the internet does not get to control what you do on the internet.
Since the dawn of the internet, there has been a presumption among its creators that information that was transmitted was treated equally – similarly to the way voices traveled over phone lines (after all, the first internet transmission was over phone lines). This general admission, come-one-come-all quality was the foundation that allowed the web’s organic growth from a fringe service to the fundamental, worldwide communications service we know today.
But even as the information available online exploded exponentially, the companies that provided the internet access on-ramp consolidated into the small handful of giant service providers we know today. As power consolidated into the hands of a very few service providers, they realized they might have the freedom to prioritize and degrade certain types of content flow over the pipes they controlled.
As examples of this abuse began to surface, Americans asked the FCC to step in and codify the “presumption” of network neutrality into actual regulations to prevent the ISPs from engaging in preferential or discriminatory treatment for financial gain or just because they felt like it.
Building on a process dating back to the mid-2000s, the FCC enacted the Open Internet Order in 2010 in order to prevent large telecommunications firms like Verizon and Comcast from stifling competition and innovation online. The agency wrote in the Order that the net neutrality rules were intended to “preserve the Internet as an open platform enabling consumer choice, freedom of expression, end-user control, competition, and the freedom to innovate without permission.”
Without net neutrality rules in place, ISPs can prevent users from visiting some websites, provide slower speeds for services like Netflix and Hulu, or even redirect users from one website to a competing website. Net neutrality rules prevent this by requiring ISPs to connect users to all lawful content on the internet equally, without giving preferential treatment to certain sites or services.
In the absence of net neutrality, companies can buy priority access to ISP customers. Larger, wealthier companies like Google or Facebook can pay ISPs to provide faster, more reliable access to their websites than to potential competitors. This could deter innovative start-up services that are unable to purchase priority access from the ISPs. Also, if ISPs can charge online services to connect to consumers, consumers would ultimately bear these additional costs (for example, on their monthly Netflix bill or in the cost of products from a local online store).
In January 2014, as a result of a Verizon lawsuit, the D.C. District Court struck down the FCC’s net neutrality rules. While the Court made clear that the FCC has authority over internet access generally, it found that the open internet rules specifically were built on a flawed legal foundation. The decision left it open for the FCC to decide what to do next to reestablish net neutrality.
In April 2014, press reports leaked that the FCC had new net neutrality proposal. The proposal reportedly did prevent ISPs from blocking or discriminating against websites, but as part of the new rules, ISPs would be able to charge companies for preferential treatment if they deemed it "commercially reasonable." The discriminatory commercial reasonableness standard opened up the internet to have fast lanes for some online services and slow lanes for others, allowing ISPs to impose a new price of entry for online innovation. This leaked proposal resulted in siginicant public outcry from the public, policymakers, and members of the media.
At the FCC's Open Meeting in May 2014, the Commission introduced their proposal for net neutrality rules, which discuss the problems that occur when ISPs get to choose winners and losers online, but still allow for fast lanes and slow lanes online, and do not go far enough to establish meaningful net neutrality. The FCC accepted a first round of public comments through July 15, 2014 and a second round of public comments through September 15, 2014.
The FCC received a record-breaking 4 million comments calling for Title II reclassification. This updated classification would allow the FCC to enforce net neutrality and would be in line with the court's 2014 decision. In response, President Obama endorsed Title II for net neutrality in a video in November 2014, and FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler published an op-ed proposing Title II authority, including for the first time mobile broadband protections, in February 2015.
In a historic vote, after an unprecedented outpouring of public support, the FCC voted to enact the strongest net neutrality rules in history on February 26th, 2015. By embracing its Title II authority and creating clear, bright line rules against blocking and discrimination, Chairman Wheeler and the FCC have earned a reputation as defenders of an Open Internet.
The decision faced multiple legal challenges from the wireless and cable industries, but the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, the same court who originally sent the rules back to the FCC to be reworked in 2014, upheld the FCC's rules in June 2016.
PK fought for Title II reclassification of internet access service to a telecommunications service. This reclassification was the only way for the FCC to create strong net neutrality rules that allow customers to have a reasonable expectation of consistent, reliable, and nondiscriminatory services. We continue to fight to maintain an open internet for all and for fair enforcement of the rules.
To learn more:
View our net neutrality timeline.
Check out our recent blog post celebrating the one-year anniversary of the FCC's net neutrality decision.
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