The wildest west: the future of net neutrality

Over the course of the year, the internet has been swamped by calls for the preservation of net neutrality, mass petitions, and most recently, a change in the FCC’s rules. But in the midst of all this hubbub, there aren’t many people taking the time to actually explain what it is.

So what is net neutrality?

Net neutrality is a rule that requires equal access (all lawful content must be treated the same in terms of loading times), a commitment to allow all lawful devices access to the internet, and a commitment to openness regarding the performance of internet service (transparency).

At the end of the day, the debate boils down to one of the most hotly debated questions over the last twenty years of the web: to regulate or not to regulate? Net neutrality advocates believe that the only way to ensure an open internet is to bring the internet itself under the regulatory framework of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), legally mandating that Internet Service Providers (ISP’s) abide by a certain set of standards.

Learn more in this podcast Why is There a Battle Over Net Neutrality? by Stuff You Should Know where they outline the history of net neutrality, as well as the gist of the current debate around weakening regulations.

Advocates of this approach include many major tech companies, including Google, Netflix, and Reddit, along with numerous other content-providers. They believe that if these rules are not legally enshrined, then ISP’s will institute what’s known as a “tiered internet,” where different sites load at different speeds based on how much money site owners are willing to pay.

Many of their supporters fear that ISP’s may go one step further, charging consumers different rates depending on which websites they visit, literally capitalizing on their pre-existing ability to monitor the web traffic of their customers.

There’s some data to back up these assumption, as some ISP’s have implemented these kinds of programs in the past. In 2007, Comcast was accused of slowing download rates for BitTorrent downloads. In 2012, Comcast was once again accused of throttling access, this time to video sites, in an effort to drive consumers to Comcast’s own video service. Similarly, there have been numerous cases where high-bandwidth users are targeted by ISP’s for using too much traffic and find their internet connection summarily throttled.

However, there are technical limitations inherent in digital communications that have some bearing on these discussions. There is a limited amount of bandwidth available, and certain kinds of websites take more of that bandwidth to load their content. For example, a website consisting of nothing but text is far easier to load than a streaming video service. There’s simply less information to push through. Therefore, there’s an argument to be made that the people who run video sites take up an inordinately large amount of bandwidth and that therefore they should pay a larger amount than comparatively “smaller” sites.

The issue raised by companies like Netflix is that if certain content providers can pay ISP’s for preferential service (faster load times etc.), then it actively makes it harder for new companies to compete. If my streaming site loads slower than Netflix, it doesn’t matter how good my selection of movies is; you’re likely going to go to the site where your videos don’t pause to load every five seconds. So these people also have an argument.

But what’s the deal right now?

Under the Obama administration, the Chairman of the FCC asserted the organization’s regulatory authority over ISP’s on the grounds that the internet was a “public good.” In essence, the argument was that, like telephone companies, ISP’s had a duty to the nation to treat everybody’s traffic equally. So, in 2015, the FCC issued an order mandating that ISP’s abide by the principles of Net Neutrality.

In January of 2017, President Trump named Ajit Pai as FCC Chairman. Four months later, Pai announced his plans to overturn the Net Neutrality requirement, arguing that a “lighter touch” was required and that the current rules stifled innovation. And so, in May of this year, the FCC voted to begin rolling back these regulations.

However, it’s important to note that nothing has actually happened yet. The debate is still ongoing, both about what regulation is required, and whether regulation is even the best option. It’s going to be some time before consumers begin to feel the effect of the FCC’s vote, and it’s entirely possible that the decision will be reversed in the face of consumer backlash. With debates and possibly legislation being created to change the current rules, no one knows what the future holds for net neutrality.