What is Net Neutrality and Why Is It Important?

obr2By Lavanya Rathnam — Last Updated: 24 May'17 2017-05-22T07:24:02+00:00

When you go online to browse, work, connect with others or just do whatever you want to, you have certain expectations. At the most basic level, you want to have the freedom to see, hear or read whatever you want.

You expect your data provider and the government to give you the freedom to do whatever you want to, privately and without interference: you expect to have complete control over your online experience. In other words, you expect net neutrality when you use the Internet.

Net neutrality is based on the principle that Internet service providers, or ISPs, should treat all data alike. There should be no discrimination or different treatment of sites based on content, equipment, platform or application. More importantly, no one should spy on what you’re doing on the Internet and charge you differently depending on what you do.

In this sense, net neutrality is an important part of most people’s guaranteed right to free speech. Just like how your phone company shouldn’t decide whom you should text or call, ISPs should also not decide what content you should be allowed to access.

Unfortunately, not everyone agrees with us here at Cloudwards.net and those people will do anything to change these fundamental rights. This is the reason we’re even talking about it in the first place.

Currently, many ISPs want to create a “tiered” Internet where they can charge different prices for different types of accessed content. Many users the world over are opposed to this idea because it means telecom companies would get to check on what each user is doing online: a direct violation of privacy.

Right now in the United States, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has decided to abolish many net neutrality rules currently in place. To understand the debate a little better, let’s take a brief look at how net neutrality came about.

History of Net Neutrality

The battle for net neutrality, though in a different form, started in 1934 when the U.S. Communications Act granted the FCC the right to regulate all domestic and foreign communications, provided there were no restrictions on the communication devices and means.

Fast forward to the 1980s, when the FCC created a Computer Policy to separate “basic” services from “enhanced” ones. Roads, airlines and phone lines came under the “basic” category while anything that used a computer came under the “enhanced” category.

This distinction became more relevant when the Internet came about in 1989. In 1996, the U.S Telecommunications Act renamed “basic” providers as “telecommunication carriers” and “enhanced” service providers as “Internet service providers.” By 2002, cable broadband emerged and it was seen as an information service that was free from any kind of federal regulation.

An important milestone happened in 2003 when professor Tim Wu coined the phrase “net neutrality” for the first time. After creating much buzz among academicians and law makers, this concept was debated and implemented as a principle two years later.

The FCC made its mark in 2005 when its then chairman, Michael Powell, laid down four principles for Internet use.

  • Freedom to access all legal content
  • Freedom to use any kind of online application
  • Freedom to attach personal devices to the computer for downloading and saving content
  • Freedom to obtain any service plan

Reclassification and Other Shenanigans

In the same year, DSL and other wireless providers were reclassified as “information services,” which meant that they were not subject to consumer laws and protections. In fact, in a landmark judgment in 2007, Comcast, accused of reducing torrenting speeds, won a case against FCC. The court ruled that Comcast was not a “telecommunications provider,” so was not subject to the Open Internet Rules.

2009 was another important year in net neutrality. In this year, the EU adopted legislation under which any user signing a contract with a ISP should be informed of bandwidth and connection speeds, including the restrictions that came with the service. This way, users could make informed choices while signing an agreement.

In the same year, the U.S. Recovery and Reinvestment Act granted $7.2 billion in investment with strong conditions and stipulations on net neutrality.

Despite these positive developments, restrictions continued to exist. In 2010, for example, UK operators were accused of blocking P2P and video streaming sites while Google and Verizon tried to cut a deal that was against the established net neutrality rules. This led to protests from websites like Reddit and Wikipedia, but also from public interest groups that wanted to keep the Internet free.

In 2014, the EU approved regulations to boost net neutrality and, around the same time, many Americans signed a petition that demanded the FCC reclassify broadband service providers as “telecommunication providers.” After a long struggle, much of it fought in courts across the land, net neutrality got a boost when, in 2015, the Democrats pushed through tough net neutrality laws that provide unhindered Internet access to everyone.

This net neutrality order was one of the signature policy achievements of the Obama administration and required ISPs like Verizon to treat all content equally. These telecom companies criticized the rules as burdensome and unnecessary, but was welcomed by online startups and smaller players as they believe ISPs shouldn’t abuse their position to favor one website over another.

Net Neutrality Now and in the Future

All the above strides made toward net neutrality could change be undone as the Trump administration has some very different ideas concerning the future of the Internet. This is evident from the appointment of Ajit Pai as the FCC chairman.

During the net neutrality debate in 2015, Pai voted against the order. He even said in December 2016 that the days of net neutrality were numbered. Pai believes broadband companies should not be subject to the same rules as that of traditional cellphone companies and wants to repeal the net neutrality laws put in place in 2015.

After Pai’s appointment in January, the Republican-controlled FCC took very quickly took some small steps towards dismantling current net neutrality laws, like allowing ISPs to sell on customer data, but Pai ihas turned up the heat by several degrees this week, which will likely lead to a bitter battle over the future of Internet regulation.

Pai seems mostly motivated by the desire to make telecom companies more competitive and he sees current regulation as a barrier to their continued growth. He even contends that ISPs are not motivated to invest more money because they don’t stand to gain much from it.

Records show that investment from the nation’s 12 largest ISPs decreased by $3.6 billion in 2016 when compared to 2014, which Pai attributes to the net neutrality laws put in place by the Obama administration.

New Boss, New Rules

The new set of rules that he proposes would eliminate the utility-style regulation on ISPs and will reduce the FCC’s broad authority to oversee ISP behavior. In addition, Pai and FCC want to collect public input to modify or even eliminate rules that prevent ISPs from blocking or throttling traffic.

These new provisions can give ISPs a free hand to enter deals with websites to promote specific content or move some websites to so-called Internet fast lanes, which could speed up traffic to some sites while slowing down traffic to others.

What this means is that in the U.S. Internet access will be controlled by a few rich corporations and they’ll charge content providers on a pay-to-show model. Big companies like Google, Twitter and Facebook can enter into a deal with an ISP to showcase their content. However, smaller startups can’t afford such deals and in turn, this will stifle innovation.

However, it looks like none of those issues matter to President Trump, Pai or any other Republicans: they all seem hell-bent on pandering to ISPs. It’s worth noting in this case that Pai worked as a lawyer for Verizon Communications from 2001 to 2003.

Support for Net Neutrality

As you can imagine, ISPs like Comcast have cheered the new wind blowing in Washington, but some other large corporations have voiced opposition. The Internet Association, a group which includes companies such as Facebook and Google, are opposed to the new rules as they too believe that the Internet should be free and open to all, as do many startups.

Politically, the Democrats as well as many members of the public are fighting the new rules as well. The main fear seems to be not just that companies will be allowed to charge whatever they want, but also that the new rules could lead to more monitoring from the NSA, as the new laws will positively encourage it.

These fears have led to an intense debate between pro- and anti-net neutrality groups. Already, 1.6 million public comments have flooded the Save The Internet website. The fight is also getting dirtier, as racist messages aimed at Pai’s Indian heritage are also flying around the Internet.

Net Neutrality Outside the U.S.

Fortunately, there are many countries around the globe who think it’s just common sense to keep the Internet neutral. The EU, for example, adopted a regulation on 25 November 2015 that gives Europeans access to an open Internet where all traffic is treated equally.

Under these rules, no ISP can block or throttle traffic, except under three circumstances.

  • Compliance with legal obligations
  • Protect the integrity of the network
  • Congestion management in exceptional situations, provided they are temporary

In India and Australia, there are no laws governing net neutrality, yet still nothing has gone wrong in either country. Strong competition and solid consumer laws have ensured that Internet access is not restricted in any way. These markets have thrived and innovated without such laws and it looks like everything is working fine for them.

Canada is more vociferous about what Canadian ISPs can and cannot do. On April 17, 2015, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission ruled that ISPs cannot block or slow down services. The ruling specifically said that such a practice is banned because it impacts customer choice, competition and innovation negatively.

In the opinion of Cloudwards.net, such laws are indicative of common sense rather than some plot to stifle Internet innovation, however it seems unlikely that any members of the Trump administration will see it that way.

Final Thoughts

Whether or not the U.S. will maintain net neutrality remains to be seen, but there is a solid chance that the days of an open American Internet are over.

What do you think about net neutrality and the Trump administration’s efforts to end it? Please let us know in the comments below. Thank you for reading.

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