Net Neutrality is the principle that data packets on the Internet should be moved impartially, without regard to content, destination or source. The Net Neutrality principle holds that wired and wireless internet service is a utility like gas, water, electricity and landline phone service; it should be available to everyone and subject to government regulation. The term came from “Network Neutrality, Broadband Discrimination,” a paper written by Columbia Law School professor Tim Wu in 2003.
Net Neutrality debate
In the United States, internet service providers (ISPs) and Net Neutrality proponents disagree about whether broadband internet is an opt-in service or a necessary utility. If the internet is a utility, it must be licensed by a government agency and customer data can not be sold. When the telephone reached utility status, the Communications Act of 1934 established the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and granted the new government agency the power to regulate telephone service providers as common carriers.
The Telecommunications Act of 1996 exempted the emerging internet from common carrier regulation but in 2010, the FCC ruled that U.S. internet broadband providers should be held to the same regulations as telecom carriers. The ruling, which was enacted during the Obama administration, essentially classified broadband internet as a utility, subject to government regulation under the FCC. In 2014, a U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that the FCC did not have the authority to extend common carrier rules to ISPs. The FCC, however, claimed its legal authority to do so was grandfathered under Title II of the Communications Act of 1934.
In June 2016, a U.S. federal court upheld the FCC’s ruling and ability to prohibit broadband internet providers from slowing or blocking internet content delivery to consumers. The ruling also prohibited broadband providers from prioritizing traffic from edge providers who are willing to pay higher fees for faster delivery, a practice known as zero rating.
ISPs including AT&T, Comcast, Time Warner and Verizon favor a two-tiered internet service model that permits zero rating and allows them to charge a premium fee for priority placement and faster speed across their carrier network pipes. They maintain that government legislation of the internet is an unnecessary barrier to innovation and economic growth.
Proponents of a two-tiered model point out that the model already exists because consumers already have a choice of using a slower dial-up internet service or paying a premium price for faster speed over broadband (coaxial cable, DSL or fiber optic services). They also point out that ISPs already prioritize some traffic over other traffic to maintain quality of service (QoS).
In May 2017, under the Trump administration, the FCC voted to review previous rulings. Advocates of reversing Net Neutrality are hopeful that the question of Net Neutrality will become moot and the FCC will allow the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to regulate the internet on a case-by-case basis, using current laws already in place to protect consumers.