Net Neutrality – what it is and why it’s important

If you’ve never heard it before, then you definitely heard it this week – “net neutrality”. Behind the newest buzzword seems to be a combination of rallying, criticism, jargon, politics, and overall confusion. What exactly is net neutrality? What was voted on? How does the ruling affect me? All questions that me, you, and the majority of Internet users have been trying to figure out – in comprehendible terms. So this week we have put together a post to help explain what the fuss has been all about.

What is net neutrality?

Net neutrality is the principle that says Internet Service Providers (ISPs) cannot base consumer’s access to Internet content based on favoritism of some sources over others. Also described as “open internet”, the principle maintains that all legal content and applications should be delivered on an equal basis.

 But what does that mean?

It means that ISPs (companies such as AT&T, Verizon, Comcast, Cox, Time Warner) cannot charge content providers (companies such as Netflix, Hulu, Amazon) for speedier delivery to consumers. It also means that ISPs cannot slow down delivery speeds of content from their competitors.

 What happened in court?

To understand the evolution of the recent decision, we first must look back a couple of years. In 2010, the FCC issued an Open Internet Order. The primary basis was much as discussed above, “to prevent broadband Internet service providers from blocking or interfering with traffic on the web… to ensure the Internet remained a level playing field for all.”

The order encountered various legal battles but the one that gained notoriety was in the January 2014 ruling of Verizon versus the Federal Communications Commission (FFC).

It was ruled that the FCC used a “questionable legal framework” to craft the order, and also “lacked the authority to implement and enforce those rules.” It was stated that the lack of authority was due to the classification of broadband providers as providers of “information services, not as providers of “telecommunication services”. This acted as the springboard for the ruling that happened last week.

On February 26, 2015, the FCC voted on a proposal pitched by FCC Chairman, Tom Wheeler. Stemming from rules from Title II of the Communications Act of 1934, the proposal reclassifies ISPs and wireless data providers as public utilities.

What was the ruling and what does it mean?

 The vote, split down party lines, passed in favor 3 to 2 by Wheeler and the two other democratic chairs.

fcc-tom-wheeler-net-neutrality

The ruling can be broken down into three main rules:

  1. No blocking – ISPs cannot block assess to any content, applications, or services as long as it is legal.
  2. No throttling – ISPs cannot slow down or diminish the quality of lawful Internet traffic.
  3. No prioritization – ISPs cannot give preferential treatment to some traffic over other, or show favoritism towards their affiliates.

Did you know that the ruling also had mobile implications?

In addition to regulating broadband providers, the proposal also includes mobile providers (AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, T-Mobile, etc). Just as with broadband providers, mobile carriers will also no longer be allowed to throttle your data or discriminate against certain services.

As we have known for years, the FCC recognized the influence that mobile holds in Internet access. The decision to include was based on the statistics that 55 percent of online traffic passes through wireless networks to phones and tablets.

Again, but what does this mean?         

It means, for example, that the application Google Wallet won’t be banned on your mobile device just because your carrier has a deal with Softcard. Another example is that you will be able to use whatever online video streaming service you want without worry that your carrier will block such use so that they can promote their own similar service – so Time Warner cannot discriminate against Netflix because it favors HBO GO.

What will the net neutrality rules NOT do?

Much has been written about what the proposal will do, but in trying to grasps all of the information being circulated, it’s also helpful to understand the ruling in terms of what the rules will NOT do. Below are a summary of the points Marguerite Reardon points out in her own article about just that – things that the net neutrality rules won’t do…

  1. They will not make your home broadband connection faster.
  2. They will not eliminate your wireless data cap.
  3. They will not stop your wireless carrier from throttling your service when you’ve reached your data cap.
  4. They will not add competition.
  5. They will not improve internet congestion.

Who is supporting net neutrality?

Content providers such as Apple, Google, Twitter, and Etsy have all voiced their favor of the ruling. Support for net neutrality has a range of valid claims. Etsy advocated strongly on behalf of the micro and small businesses the Internet supports saying that entrepreneurship cannot be fostered if large companies are able to push past independent ones.

Twitter also released on its company blog an extensive post of why it favors net neutrality. Citing various as to why safeguarding the open architecture is essential for both economic aspirations and freedom of expression, below is a quote from the company’s public policy manager.

“This openness promotes free and fair competition and fosters ongoing investment and innovation. We need clear, enforceable, legally sustainable rules to ensure that the Internet remains open and continues to give everyone the power to create and share ideas and information instantly, without barriers. This is the heart of Twitter. Without such net neutrality principles in place, some of today’s most successful and widely-known Internet companies might never have come into existence.”

Other supporters also include Yelp, Foursquare, Kickstarter, and Tumblr.

Who is against it?

Those not in favor of the ruling (mainly ISPs) are fearful of the reclassification specifically due to a section of Title II that grants the FCC authority to set prices. However, Wheeler has reiterated, “the rules would not dictate rates, impose tariffs, open up carriers’ networks to competitors, or meddle with their business”.

The fear also remains that overtime the government will take on a heavy-handed approach to the regulation. This includes the possibility of charging frees that companies claim will have to passed onto the consumer. Carriers are also claiming that the ruling will discourage investing and innovation of their network infrastructure.

Many have spoken out against the ruling and the issue of net neutrality as a whole. Nokia, Verizon, AT&T, Comcast have released statements about their dissatisfaction.

“What doesn’t make sense, and has never made sense, is to take a regulatory framework developed for Ma Bell in the 1930s and make her great grandchildren, with technologies and options undreamed of eighty years ago, live under it,” said Jim Cicconi, AT&T’s senior executive vice president-external and legislative affairs, in a statement.

In particular, Verizon made quite the statement when it published a press release written in Morse code following Thursday’s ruling. When the company did release a translated version for “readers in the 21st century”, it was presented in typewriter type and with a date of February 26, 1934.

Verizon v FCC

Echoing that of the statement made by Cicconi, the first line of the release reads: “Today (Feb.26) the Federal Communications Commission approved an order urged by President Obama that imposes rules on broadband Internet services that were written in the era of the steam locomotive and the telegraph.”

How is this going to affect me?

Well not a whole lot – you can still keeping on using the Web as usual – binge watching Netflix, spending hours on Pinterest, and keep on creeping on your ex on Facebook.

These new rules wont be official until summer as the regulations only become effective 60 days after being published with the Federal Register. It’s then deeply expected that the major telecommunication companies plan to challenge the rules in new court cases. There’s the possibility that a judge could put the rules on hold, or if the next presidential election yields a republication, it could also be expected this issue could be left to die.

What is your stance on the issue? Is the FCC overreaching? Is this ruling a needed protection? Is there a compromise that could be reached? Let us know in a comment what your thoughts and opinions are!

– Savannah Valade

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