Standing in between them is President Obama's top telecom regulator, Tom Wheeler. He's a former cable and wireless industry lobbyist whom Obama tapped to be head of the Federal Communications Commission last year. Sitting atop the independent agency, Wheeler has the power to determine whether and how businesses can charge each other for Internet access to you and me. Indirectly, that means he has a role to play in determining whether the cost of your Internet service rises, and if so, how quickly. But he can't do it alone: He needs at least a majority of the five-member FCC to vote with him. And that brings us to today's crucial meeting. Here's everything you need to know about net neutrality.
What is net neutrality, and why should I care?
Advocates say net neutrality is about fairness. It's the concept that all Internet traffic, whether it's e-mail attachments or streaming video or cat GIFs, should be treated equally. Internet providers that abide by net neutrality make a commitment not to slow down or block your access to the content you want — and, just as importantly, they don't slow or block companies like Google or Netflix from getting access to you.
So what's this proposal we're hearing so much about?
Well, there's a lot we think we know, but not a lot that we know we know. What we think we know is that the FCC wants to draw up rules that seek to enshrine net neutrality in U.S. regulations. These regulations would make it impossible for broadband providers like Verizon or Comcast to block your access to Web services like Google or Netflix, or their access to you. But what it would not do is prohibit the broadband providers from treating some forms of Internet traffic (say, streaming video) differently from others (say, e-mail). This type of "discrimination" among traffic types has consumer advocates really upset; they argue that it could upset the balance of the Internet and lead to fast lanes and slow lanes. The FCC has said it won't allow companies to unfairly take advantage of the system; it's suggesting that if a company's behavior is "commercially unreasonable," the commission could intervene. What "unreasonable" means will depend on a set of factors to be unveiled in today's plan.
What is today's meeting about, and why is it so important?
Every month, the FCC meets to discuss the policy issues before it. This month happens to be the month that the body considers net neutrality. The meeting is vital because the FCC is considering policies that will likely shape how the Internet functions at a basic level, thereby determining what you can and can't do on it, and how much it'll cost.
What's going to happen at the meeting?
Well, there'll be protesters.
FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler is going to unveil a proposal for net neutrality that people have been talking about for weeks now, even though nobody's seen a public draft of the plan. To move forward with it, he needs at least two votes from the other commissioners. At this point, it's unclear whether he even has the votes; the plan is so touchy that his colleagues on the panel have publicly pushed back against it, in a surprising move. Democratic FCC commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel and Republican commissioner Ajit Pai both called for a delay on the vote, though for different reasons: Rosenworcel wants the rules to be beefed up, while Pai would rather not see any rules at all. The other Democratic commissioner, Mignon Clyburn, signaled she's been listening attentively to the tens of thousands of public comments on the issue. The final member of the commission, Michael O'Rielly, is more of a wild card. Nobody's really sure where he stands on the proposal, but as a Republican, it's possible he thinks a lot like Pai does.
Shouldn't the government just stay out of the Internet? Why is it trying to regulate the Web?
Right now, the Internet has few rules. But because just a handful of companies control most people's access to the Web, the FCC is concerned that Internet providers could begin blocking people from getting to the sites they like. So the agency has proposed a set of rules that would keep them from doing so. These rules are meant to replace an older set of regulations that a court recently said didn't pass muster — they attempted to regulate ISPs like phone companies when the FCC has maintained previously that broadband providers are more like information services. Under the law, the FCC must regulate information services more lightly than phone companies. So Wheeler has had to go back to the drawing board, making sure he stays within the bounds of his legal authority while still trying to accomplish the goals of the old rules. It's a difficult balancing act.
So are these new rules good or bad for me?
Depends on your viewpoint. Consumer advocates say the rules don't go far enough; they would allow Internet providers like Comcast and Verizon to charge Web services a toll for better, faster access to consumers. So, Netflix might be asked to sign a deal with AT&T in order to make sure its streams don't lag for U-Verse customers. Then Netflix might pass those extra costs on to you. It might even prevent smaller companies from starting up if they can't afford the fee, critics say, and some venture capitalists argue it would deter investments in new, innovative ideas.
On the other hand, broadband providers argue that if a company like Netflix is sending vast amounts of traffic over Comcast's network, it should have to pay for the bandwidth it uses. It's not fair to the ISPs that such companies can push as much as they want over the pipes and leave the broadband companies to figure out how to handle it.
Wheeler is trying to find a middle ground — one that allows Internet providers some leeway to discriminate among types of traffic while still making it impossible for companies to block content. He has insisted that if the situation warrants, he won't hesitate to regulate ISPs more heavily, using what's known as Title II of the Communications Act — the part of the law that the FCC uses to regulate phone companies. Broadband companies are fearful of that move, saying it could restrict investments in network upgrades and wouldn't prevent an Internet fast lane.
What happens if the new rules get enough votes? Is that it for the open Internet?
Not necessarily. It's important to remember what's being voted on is merely a proposal. The ideas contained within would help companies raise prices, but it also makes a crucial appeal to the public on certain issues, like whether businesses should be banned from creating Internet fast lanes from the very start. If Wheeler's proposal gets enough votes, it'll kick off a rule-making process that solicits comments from people like you and me (here's how to make your voice heard). That period will stretch into September, meaning the FCC won't make a final decision on the rules until the fall or early winter, but the proposal will determine how the battle lines get drawn.
Regulators have spent years writing, re-writing and litigating rules that seek to keep the Internet free of interference by Internet providers. And today, it all comes to a head.