The internet is a set of pipes. It’s also a set of values. Whose? The people who consider it a great social equalizer, a playing field that has to be level? Or the ones who own the network and consider themselves best qualified to manage it? It’s a philosophical contest fought under the banner of “net neutrality,” a slogan that inspires rhetorical devotion but eludes precise definition. Broadly, it means everything on the internet should be equally accessible — that the internet should be a place where great ideas compete on equal terms with big money. Even in the contentious arena of net neutrality, that’s a principle everybody claims to honor. Interpreting it turned into a different story.
In May, with a new chairman appointed by Republican President Donald Trump, the Federal Communications Commission voted to begin to dismantle rules that forbid broadband providers from interfering with web traffic. On July 12, about 70,000 websites and organizations protested this. Reddit, the social news and discussion site, featured a pop-up message that typed out letter by letter: “The internet’s less fun when your favorite sites load slowly, isn’t it?” Under Democratic President Barack Obama, in February 2015 the FCC had imposed increased government oversight of broadband traffic; these regulations were upheld by a federal court in June 2016. Internet service providers were then treated as public utilities and were forbidden from blocking or slowing rivals’ content. The rules also applied open-internet protections to wireless services for tablets and smartphones. Both the Obama administration and internet service companies, which had fought the rules, said they wanted an open internet and “net neutrality,” an idea also embraced by other countries with widely varying definitions of the principle. In February 2016, India ruled that mobile operators cannot charge different rates to different parts of the Web, which ended Facebook’s offer of a Free Basics service that would have allowed no-cost access to its social networking site and a limited number of other sites.
The term “network neutrality” was coined in 2002 by Tim Wu, a law professor and author. He argued that no authority should be able to decide what kind of information was and wasn’t allowed on the internet. But Wu also recognized the expense of maintaining network hardware, so he proposed that providers should be allowed to charge based on usage. People would pay for more bandwidth, not for access to certain sites. In 2005, the FCC released a statement turning Wu’s principles into policies. When Comcast interfered with access to web networks that used a lot of bandwidth and enabled trading of pirated content, the FCC balked in 2008. Comcast sued, and won. The FCC set new rules and Verizon then challenged them, winning in a U.S. court in early 2014. This then started the process for the 2015 rules.
Supporters had said with internet use and related costs rising fast, the FCC needed net neutrality power to force a shrinking handful of powerful internet service providers to treat all web traffic equally. Many Republicans have sided with internet providers who said that more regulation deters investment in a better internet. Opponents had also challenged the FCC’s legal right to upend the old regulatory framework that was in place as companies spent billions of dollars to build high-speed internet networks. Beneath the legal and policy questions lies a philosophical one: Who owns the internet? Providers who pay to maintain it? Consumers who pay to connect to it? Content companies whose services depend on it? Who balances their competing interests?
The Reference Shelf
- Professor Tim Wu coined the phrase “network neutrality” in a 2002 paper.
- A Wired magazine article untangles some confusion over “fast lanes.”
- Title II of the Communications Act of 1934 sets forth regulations “common carriers” must follow “in the public interest.”
- The comedian John Oliver had strong feelings about net neutrality (boring and “hugely important”) in 2014 and in May again called for people to contact the FCC about the issue.
- A Bloomberg QuickTake Q&A on what technology companies want from Trump.
Edmund Lee contributed to the original version of this article.
First published June 24, 2014
To contact the editor responsible for this QuickTake:
Anne Cronin at firstname.lastname@example.org