The internet is a set of pipes. It’s also a set of values. Whose? The people who consider it a great social equalizer, a playing field that has to be level? Or the ones who own the network and consider themselves best qualified to manage it? It’s a philosophical contest fought under the banner of “net neutrality,” a slogan that inspires rhetorical devotion but eludes precise definition. Broadly, it means everything on the internet should be equally accessible — that the internet should be a place where great ideas compete on equal terms with big money. Even in the contentious arena of net neutrality, that’s a principle everybody claims to honor. But the U.S. has just done a big U-turn on how to interpret it.
A U.S. requirement that internet service providers treat web content equally will end June 11. The U.S. Federal Communications Commission voted Dec. 14 to roll back the net neutrality rules that had been enacted under Democratic President Barack Obama. “We are restoring the light-touch framework that has governed the internet for most of its existence,” FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said. The 2015 rules had imposed increased government oversight of broadband traffic, and internet service providers were forbidden from blocking or slowing rivals’ content. The rules had also applied open-internet protections to wireless services for tablets and smartphones. The vote to vacate the net neutrality rules was foreshadowed in early 2017 when President Donald Trump picked Pai, a Republican member of the FCC and longtime foe of net neutrality regulation, to head the agency. Both the Obama administration and internet service providers, which had fought the 2015 rules, said they wanted an open internet and net neutrality, an idea also embraced by other countries with widely varying definitions of the principle. Senate Democrats pushed for a vote to nullify Pai’s FCC gutting of old net neutrality rule, using a mechanism that lets Congress override agency actions. It passed on May 16, 52 to 47, but the measure isn’t likely to win a majority in the House, where Republicans hold a larger majority, or, if it did, be signed by President Donald Trump.
The term “network neutrality” was coined in 2002 by Tim Wu, a law professor and author. He argued that no authority should be able to decide what kind of information was and wasn’t allowed on the internet. But Wu also recognized the expense of maintaining network hardware, so he proposed that providers should be allowed to charge based on usage. People would pay for more bandwidth, not for access to certain sites. In 2005, the FCC released a statement turning Wu’s principles into policies. When Comcast interfered with access to web networks that used a lot of bandwidth and enabled trading of pirated content, the FCC balked in 2008. Comcast sued, and won. The FCC set new rules and Verizon then challenged them, winning in a U.S. court in early 2014. This started the process for what became the 2015 rules.
Supporters say that with internet use and related costs rising fast, net neutrality rules were needed to force the shrinking handful of powerful internet service providers to treat all web traffic equally. Small startup companies argue that without strong net neutrality rules, internet providers could slow their content or charge them for unimpeded access to their audience. Supporters note that the net neutrality regulation survived a federal appeals court challenge from broadband providers in 2016; some supporters filed legal challenges against the repeal on Feb. 22, the same day the new rules were published in the Federal Register. Many Republicans have sided with internet providers who said that more regulation deters investment in a better internet. Opponents of the rules had also challenged the FCC’s legal right to upend the old regulatory framework that was in place as companies spent billions of dollars to build high-speed internet networks. Beneath the legal and policy questions lies a philosophical one: Who owns the internet? Providers who pay to maintain it? Consumers who pay to connect to it? Content companies whose services depend on it? Who balances their competing interests?
• Professor Tim Wu coined the phrase “network neutrality” in a 2002 paper.
• A Wired magazine article untangles some confusion over “fast lanes.”
• Title II of the Communications Act of 1934 sets forth regulations “common carriers” must follow “in the public interest,” and the 2015 open internet order.
• The comedian John Oliver had strong feelings about net neutrality (boring and “hugely important”).
• Bloomberg news talked to Tim Berners-Lee, the “father of the web,” about net neutrality.
Todd Shields contributed to this article.
First published June 24, 2014
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