In its 2010 Open Internet Order, the FCC sang the virtues of net neutrality for fostering competition:
"The Internet is a level playing field. Consumers can make their own choices about what applications and services to use and are free to decide what content they want to access, create, or share with others. This openness promotes competition."
The Open Internet Order formalized three important rules to prevent anti-competitive practices by ISPs:
- Transparency - ISPs must disclose how they manage traffic on their networks
- No blocking - ISPs cannot block their customers from accessing websites, applications or streaming services owned by competitors
- No unreasonable discrimination - ISPs can only make "reasonable" adjustments to their networks to improve service, not to punish a competitor or specific type of content
But a 2014 court decision threw those regulations into question when a judge ruled that the FCC didn't have the authority to stop ISPs from discriminating against websites or charging fees to access an internet "fast lane" [source: Ammori]. To do so, the FCC would have to reclassify ISPs as a "utility" and regulate them under a more stringent set of communications rules called Title II.
And that's exactly what happened in 2015. With input from more than 4 million online commentators, the FCC under President Barack Obama decided to regulate ISPs as a Title II utility, and imposed additional reporting requirements and rules against anti-competitive practices, notably:
- No blocking - same as above
- No throttling - ISPs cannot slow down or degrade the delivery of any type of content, especially from competitors
- No paid prioritization - ISPs cannot charge websites and content providers a fee to get faster delivery on the network
Paid prioritization could create a seriously uneven playing field in which small startups are relegated to the slow lane while wealthy corporations cruise along at light speed. This is among the regulations that current FCC chairman Ajit Pai wants to abolish [source: FCC].