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. is preparing to do a big U-turn on how to interpret it.
At the start of his presidency, Donald Trump picked Ajit Pai, a Republican member of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission and longtime foe of net neutrality regulation, to head the agency. In November, Pai proposed to vacate net neutrality rules that had been enacted under Democratic President Barack Obama. The FCC will vote on the change in December. The 2015 rules had imposed increased government oversight of broadband traffic. Internet service providers became treated as public utilities and were forbidden from blocking or slowing rivals’ content. The rules also applied open-internet protections to wireless services for tablets and smartphones. After Pai first proposed the idea of gutting net neutrality rules back in May, websites and internet organizations promoted a “day of action” to save net neutrality. Reddit, the social news and discussion site, made its point with a pop-up message that slowly typed out letter by letter: “The internet’s less fun when your favorite sites load slowly, isn’t it?” Both the Obama administration and internet service providers, which had fought the rules, said they wanted an open internet and “net neutrality,” an idea also embraced by other countries with widely varying definitions of the principle.
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, the FCC needed net neutrality power to force a 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 also note that the regulation survived a federal appeals court challenge from broadband providers in 2016. Many Republicans have sided with internet providers who said that more regulation deters investment in a better internet. In announcing the proposed rules change in November, FCC Chairman Pai said he was looking forward to returning to a “light-touch, market-based framework.” 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?
Edmund Lee contributed to the original version of this article.
First published June
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