Net Neutrality: What Is It and Why Should You Care?

Update 11/21/17: This blog post was originally posted on May 15, 2017. Given that the FCC chairman has officially revealed plans to end net neutrality, and the Federal Communications Commission’s impending planned vote on December 14, we thought it was worth reposting this article to help our patrons understand why net neutrality matters to us all.

You may have heard a lot about “net neutrality” these days. Much of this is surrounding an FCC proposal known as Docket No. 17-108 “Restoring Internet Freedom”. That extremely misleading title aside; the proposal would reclassify ISPs from being a Title II utility which opponents argue would endanger Net Neutrality.

What does that mean?

ISP stands for Internet Service Provider. If you are accessing the Internet from home, work, your public library, Starbucks etc. you are making use of an Internet Service Provider. Some common providers in the US are Comcast, Verizon, AT&T, Time Warner Cable and RCN. Internet Service Providers act as gatekeepers to the internet. The customer pays an ISP for access to the internet and the service is provided through various means (wireless, cellular, fiber-optic cable) and at various uniform connection speeds.

On February 26, 2015, the FCC adopted Open Internet rules (a.k.a. Net Neutrality). The definition of Open Internet according to the FCC is as follows:

“An Open Internet means consumers can go where they want, when they want … It means innovators can develop products and services without asking for permission. It means consumers will demand more and better broadband as they enjoy lawful Internet services, applications and content, and broadband providers cannot block, throttle, or create special “fast lanes” for that content. The FCC’s Open Internet rules protect and maintain open, uninhibited access to legal, online content without broadband Internet access providers being allowed to block, impair, or establish fast/slow lanes to lawful content.”

The FCC also highlights the following FCC Open Internet rules:

  • No Blocking: providers may not block access to legal content, applications, services, or non-harmful devices” (for ex. if Comcast blocked access to Netflix, their content competitor)
  • No Throttling: broadband providers may not impair or degrade lawful internet traffic on the basis of content, applications, services, or non-harmful devices” (for ex. if AT&T throttled Spotify and Hulu streamers)
  • No Paid Prioritization: broadband providers may not favor some lawful Internet traffic over other lawful traffic in exchange for consideration of any kind – in other words, no ‘fast lanes.’ This rule also bans ISPs from prioritizing content and services of their affiliates.” (for ex. if Verizon speeds up access to The Daily Beast because they’ve paid them to)


Illustration by Electronic Frontier Foundation / CC BY

These rules sound pretty good, right? These Open Internet protections, or “Net Neutrality,” affect all of us who access the Internet. Well, Docket No. 17-108 is proposing the government strip away these protections.  Broadband Internet is currently classified as a Title II utility under the Communications Act. This acknowledges that broadband is a public good, and under Title II, broadband service is subject to stricter regulations from the government. It’s worth noting the FCC was clear that under the Open Internet Rules, the Commission wouldn’t impose utility provisions that were not relevant to modern broadband service.

So why would someone at the FCC want to overturn the Open Internet rules? The official reason is that the Open Internet rules are seen as government overreach. ISPs do not want the government to micromanage their business practices. The current FCC Chairman (who at one time served as Associate General Counsel for Verizon Communications), Ajit Varadaraj Pai, argues that we don’t need the Open Internet rules because we can just trust the ISPs not to engage in the currently prohibited practices, because things were OK before. But ISPs did engage in the above practices before and can’t be trusted to police themselves. Here are just some examples of violations committed against Net Neutrality:

In 2014, judges asked a Verizon attorney, Helgi Walker, during oral arguments in the Verizon v. FCC case if the company would favor some preferred services, content or sites over others if the court overruled existing Open Internet rules. This is her response: “I’m authorized to state from my client today that but for these rules we would be exploring those types of arrangements.” She repeated this view several times.

It’s also worth noting that the Internet playing field over the past few years has become even more competitive with broadband providers increasingly delving into content creation. Lifting Open Internet regulations would allow ISPs to benefit financially and competitively. What they are not advertising is that removal of Net Neutrality protections would also result in ISPs being able to influence what we view/access through the Internet and block access to certain sites/content entirely. This can be achieved by playing on our frustrations with slowdowns, engaging in pay-for-play or outright censorship.  ISPs are being paid to provide customer access to the Internet, but what these practices would amount to is a “Disruption of Access” which is certainly not what we’re paying them for. As a librarian I believe in open access to information for all and the Internet is a hugely important source of information. Attacks on Net Neutrality and Open Internet protections should be very concerning to us all.

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