The term ‘net neutrality’ was coined back in 2003 by Columbia University media law professor Tim Wu. The debate around this issue has been present ever since then, but, due to a collection of factors – including a gradual but dramatic shift in what the Internet looks like today (compared to over a decade ago) – the last couple of years have seen that debate become much more significant.
What is the net neutrality debate about?
Just in case you’ve been living somewhere without internet access for the last two years, in its simplest form net neutrality is the principle that all Internet traffic should be treated equally. All the data – the content – we receive from the internet comes through internet service providers – they are responsible for the ‘networks’ in ‘net neutrality’. Some of these ISPs want to have more control over the content they deliver – letting them, for example, charge different rates for different speeds of delivery, or even refuse to deliver some kinds of content completely.
Why is it important?
Because the internet is such a big part of our day to day life, it’s hard to get away from the assumption that it will always remain free and open – like it is now, more or less. However, the reality is that there is simply no such guarantee. The vast majority of high-speed internet in the US is served by a handful of powerful internet service providers. If the net neutrality debate falls in their favour, they will have much more control over what content you can access and with what ease.
So obviously, the net neutrality debate is important to everyone who thinks access to a decent internet connection is important to their lives. Which is most likely you, if you’re reading this. But the problem with the net-neutrality debate is that it falls firmly into the category of ‘boring but important’. So even though both sides of the fight are going to great lengths to try and simplify their message, the debate is undeniably complex and longwinded.
Why is it in the news?
2015 is apparently the year that net neutrality gets settled. For years, there has been little firm legislation in place, leaving ISPs with both the means and the incentive to sue the FCC over how much regulatory control it has over their businesses. For example, just recently in January, Verizon (a big ISP in the US) stopped the FCC from controlling its introduction of ‘fast lanes’ for select content providers.
Because of this unsustainable situation Tim Wheeler, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, has declared that the debate must be settled soon: “the time to settle the Net Neutrality question has arrived”. The most significant step towards this came in February, when, following a call from President Obama for regulators to maintain a free and open internet, the FCC voted to approve new powers to oversee internet. As you can imagine, the fallout from this result is still very much ongoing – some declaring it a landmark victory, others stating that the legislation doesn’t go far enough and still others arguing that net neutrality isn’t the real problem.
Another reason net neutrality is receiving so much coverage is the unprecedented level of public engagement and activism it has attracted. Despite the complexity of the debate, and the fact that much of the discussion and decisions are beyond customers’ control, over 4 million people took the time to submit comments to the FCC as they considered their verdict on the February vote.
What’s happening right now?
The most recent development in the ongoing net neutrality debate is the public release by the FCC of its new rules for the regulation of the Internet. This includes rules that prevent ISPs from blocking or slowing down any legitimate content or online service, and makes it illegal for them to offer ‘fast lanes’ to the highest bidder.
On behalf of the largest ISPs, the National Cable and Telecommunications Association, said the recent release “only confirms our fear that the commission has gone well beyond creating enforceable open internet rules, and has instead instituted a regulatory regime change for the internet that will lead to years of litigation, serious collateral consequences for consumers, and ongoing market uncertainty that will slow America’s quest to advance broadband deployment and adoption”.
In other words, what incentive is there for the ISPs to keep improving their offer if they can’t easily profit from it?
What happens next?
Right now, the 313 page document is being closely reviewed by communications lawyers, who will then advise ISPs on what action to take. The general verdict seems to be that the ISPs will sue the FCC and attempt to overturn the new legislation.