Net Neutrality Starter Pack: 5 Essential Things to Know

Here are the basics ahead of the Federal Communications Commission’s vote on Thursday

With an upcoming Federal Communications Commission vote on net neutrality, a refresher course on the topic is worthwhile to help plough through the technical jargon.

Chairman Ajit Pai is looking to undo the 2015 decision put in place under the last administration, which codified the rules we have in place today.

But before the vote on Thursday, TheWrap takes you through the basics on the topic at hand.

First off, what is net neutrality? 
Net neutrality is the notion that internet service providers (ISPs) cannot restrict, slowdown, or block access to particular sites; this provides fair access to content and information regardless of the source. In short, ISPs cannot play “favorites” with sites its users are trying to access.

When did it become a thing? 
Columbia University law professor Timothy Wu coined the term in his 2003 paper “Network Neutrality, Broadband Discrimination.”

It was a concern more closely related to telecom services than internet providers at the time, but Wu looked forward and forecast “communications regulators” spending time on “conflicts between the private interests of broadband providers and the public’s interest in a competitive innovation environment centered on the internet.” Bingo.

Wu argued legislation in favor of net neutrality was the best way to prevent ISPs from harming the consumer.

“Government regulation in such contexts invariably tries to help ensure that the short-term interests of the owner do not prevent the best products or applications becoming available to end-users,” Wu said. “The same interest animates the promotion of network neutrality: preserving a Darwinian competition among every conceivable use of the internet so that the only the best survive.”

Landmark moment
The FCC issued its “Open Internet” ruling in February 2015, which advanced net neutrality principles. The regulations classified broadband providers as public utilities, and outlined three core rules:

1) Broadband providers cannot block access to “legal content, applications, services, or non-harmful devices.”

2) Broadband providers cannot “throttle,” or slow down, access to “lawful internet traffic.”

3) Broadband providers cannot create “fast lanes,” or favor certain sites over others for money, and cannot prioritize content from its affiliates.

The ruling came under former FCC chairman Tom Wheeler, and passed on a vote of three-to-two. The decision reclassified high-speed internet as a telecommunications services, subjecting providers to regulation under Title II of the Communications Act of 1934 — which allowed the FCC to regulate against paid prioritization.

Can providers ever slow down or restrict my access? 
Not really, except in cases of “reasonable network management.” This does not allow for business-related speed reductions.

Why is it important for me? 
A free and open internet is essential to enjoying your favorite content. The current FCC rules prohibit major providers like Comcast and Verizon from charging services like Netflix and YouTube to reach its customers. Without net neutrality, this cost would be passed onto the consumer. And considering industry behemoths like AT&T own competing content providers like DirecTV, it would be a rational business decision for providers to pursue.

What’s more, net neutrality is a safeguard against the curtailing of free speech. Allowing internet providers to restrict or charge a premium for the information on its network makes them the arbiter of what you can see and read. 

Net neutrality allows for all opinions and content to move along a level playing field — no matter how unpopular or inflammatory. Free speech is worthless unless its extended to “the one who thinks differently,” as Rosa Luxemburg once said.

Without net neutrality, we’d be hard-pressed to defend the voices of those willing to think differently online.