A Brief Overview of Net Neutrality
Last Updated on February 16, 2021 by hilary bird
Net Neutrality is a term that is now loosely used to describe a series of rules within the Telecommunications Act which have been used to regulate Internet Service Providers (ISPs). The term was first coined by Law Professor Tim Wu in a paper that was published in 2002. While the original Telecommunications act was established in 1934, much of the rules that concern us today originated in the 1970s. This is largely due to the fact that the language used in the Telecommunications act transferred reasonably well to the early forms of the Internet which, up until the late 1990’s, still ran primarily through telephone networks.
The Recent History of Net Neutrality Legislation (2000 – 2009)
In the early 2000’s ISPs started rolling out new network technologies that were built separately from the already existing telephone networks. ISPs collectively decided that these newer technologies—namely broadband and DSL—were not subject to the same regulation as earlier forms of Internet service. Under this assumption, ISPs began to experiment with a number of practices which were a direct affront to earlier, established ideals about the free nature of the Internet and how it should function.
Most consumers did not approve of these practices, and in 2004 the acting chair of the FCC, Michael Powell, reacted by putting forth a series of guidelines. These guidelines are known as The Four Internet Freedoms and were largely built by updating principles that were established in the original Telecommunications Act:
- Freedom to access content
- Freedom to use applications
- Freedom to attach personal devices
- Freedom to obtain service plan information
The Four Internet Freedoms would serve as the basis for regulating ISPs, effectively standing in as the Net Neutrality framework of the time. However, these rules were constantly challenged by ISPs, both in legal battles or by intentional disobedience.
The Mounting Controversy (2010 – Present)
In 2010, the then acting FCC passed a series of rules to strengthen the functioning Net Neutrality legislation set by the previous FCC. However, those rules were quickly challenged by ISPs and would be largely dismantled after a series of losses in federal appeals courts. Following this failure to establish a coherent Net Neutrality framework, a group of ISPs led by Comcast colluded to purposefully slow Internet traffic to the up and coming company Netflix in 2012. The ISPs then charged Netflix a fee for restoring and maintaining unrestricted bandwidth for future use.
After another series of failures in federal court cases brought by ISPs, the FCC passed a new set of rules in 2015. These rules were unique because they designated broadband and DSL Internet networks as Title II scheduling under the Telecommunications act. Shortly thereafter in 2016, a federal appeals court decided to uphold the FCC’s new rules and designation, in response to a challenge brought by ISPs. This victory would effectively protect broadband and DSL under all previously established telecommunications laws, while also strengthening the FCC’s position to enforce new legislation.
The Current FCC’s Recent Decision (2017)
The recent decision by the current FCC, on December 14th 2017, was to overturn the designation that was established in 2015, removing broadband and DSL from any protections under the Telecommunications Act. This single move has effectively disabled all legislation that was once colloquially known as Net Neutrality.
A Future without Net Neutrality
The recent decision by the current FCC has essentially given each individual ISP free reign over how they build out broadband networks. Consumer advocacy groups are rightfully concerned with the possibility that ISPs will abandon the End-to-End network philosophy that has made the Internet an interconnected and flexible tool across so many different platforms. ISPs contend that this reduction in regulation will allow them to build better products and offer better services. However given their history, it seems at least as likely that ISPs will revert back to their unpopular, pre-Net-Neutrality practices—like blocking, throttling, and prioritizing content.