On Dec. 14, 2017, the United States Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted 3-2 to overturn the net neutrality rules established under President Barack Obama's administration. But what exactly does that mean?
What Is Net Neutrality?
The basic concept of net neutrality is that everyone should be able to access the same content on the internet regardless of the device or internet service provider (ISP) they use. Also, the experience of accessing that content should be the same for everyone.
Let's say you subscribe to ISP A, and I subscribe to ISP B. We each have a different internet service provider. Under the concept of net neutrality, we should each be able to access the same websites and services equally. This should be the case even if you're getting on the web using a computer and I'm using a tablet (or any other web-enabled device).
Why Are People Passionate About Protecting Net Neutrality?
If ISPs don't adhere to net neutrality, they could drastically affect how we access information on the web. Here are a few scenarios.
You pop on the web to check your favorite news source. But ISP A has its own news source it would much prefer you to visit because it can make money off advertising on its own news page. So ISP A blocks your access to the news source you would prefer to use. That's an extreme case, but there are other possible scenarios. For example, ISP A might put up a paywall — you can access the news source but only if you pay a monthly fee. Or ISP A could throttle traffic to and from the news source so that accessing the page is frustratingly slow, discouraging you from using a competing news service.
Without net neutrality, ISPs also could start charging companies for what amounts to fast lanes on the internet. Arguably, these "fast lanes" already exist for biggies like Google, Facebook and Netflix, as a Wired article points out. However, companies without such fast lanes could find themselves forced to pay ISPs, so that customers aren't frustrated by long buffering sequences before, say, a video will begin to play. While larger companies might be able to weather that kind of environment, smaller startups could find themselves priced out of the market entirely.
What's the Argument Against Net Neutrality?
Frequently, the argument boils down to "regulation is bad." It's not that net neutrality itself is at fault but rather the rules themselves are the problem. Several critics, including the three Republican members of the FCC, say that ISPs should still have a vested interest in maintaining the rules of net neutrality because it's a free market. If one ISP acts in a way contrary to the concept of net neutrality, one of its competitors could sweep in and offer a fairer service. Customers would flee from the first ISP and flock to the second. Net neutrality would still be in place without the need for regulations and government oversight.
What's the Counterargument?
Essentially, the counterargument says that the free market approach is unrealistic. A major problem in the United States is that in many regions there is little to no competition among ISPs, particularly as you start to look at the higher broadband services.
In 2015, the FCC redefined broadband speed as requiring a minimum of 25 megabits per second (formerly it was 4 megabits per second). According to that definition, the FCC's most recent Internet Access Services report states that 66 percent of all residences with access to broadband download speeds have two or fewer choices in internet service providers. Twenty-one percent have no access at all. If you go up to 100 megabits per second, it's even worse. Forty-seven percent of homes with such access have two or fewer choices, and a full 51 percent don't have any providers at that rate.
If there is no competition among ISPs, argue net neutrality advocates, then there is no incentive to keep ISPs from discarding the concept of net neutrality. Customers have nowhere else to turn to and will be forced to subscribe to an ISP with predatory policies. The ISP industry then effectively becomes a series of regional monopolies.
What Did the FCC Overturn?
In 2015, the previous FCC board voted to classify internet service providers as a public utility. This put ISPs under a category of services that the FCC has authority to govern. The FCC overturned that decision, potentially giving ISPs much more freedom to operate without regulations.
What Happens Next?
It will take a few weeks for the new rules to take effect. Several organizations are in the process of filing lawsuits challenging the decision. Congress might get involved. And there is an ongoing investigation into an apparent campaign to flood the FCC's public comment page with fraudulent anti-net neutrality statements attributed to people who claim they never posted such a comment in the first place. In short, it's a big mess that we won't resolve for several more months.