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What Is Net Neutrality?

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Internet heavyweights Facebook, Google, Amazon, and Netflix are joining at least 80,000 other websites to protest the Federal Communication Commission’s (FCC) proposed rollback of network neutrality (net neutrality) today, urging users to send comments to the regulatory agency demanding net neutrality’s preservation.

But what, exactly, is net neutrality? And why does everyone care about it all of a sudden?

As of now, net neutrality is shorthand for the internet as we know it. It’s the idea and tradition that internet service providers (ISPs) will not discriminate or charge differently based on content, website, or platform–and essentially that ISPs must provide the same version of the internet to everyone regardless of their location, political opinion, or internet consumption habits.

Though generally understood as more of a principle than anything, it wouldn’t be entirely inaccurate to say that it’s the present state of the law. The FCC officially regulates ISPs and in 2015 classified them as “common carriers” under Title II of the 1934 Communications Act and Section 706 of the 1996 Telecommunications Act in order to preserve the neutrality of the network we call the internet.

Common carrier status effectively means ISPs are treated similar to phone companies and other utilities; therefore they must keep the internet an open and neutral gateway to the content contained online. Effectively, this means ISPs can’t speed up or slow down access to certain content or throttle users’ bandwidth just because they feel like it.

Here are a few examples of what a compromised (i.e. non-neutral) network might look like:

1. The illicit behavior of Comcast in 2007. The ISP was secretly throttling the bandwidth of users who were uploading to peer-to-peer file sharing services like BitTorrent; once this behavior was discovered by the FCC, Comcast was ordered to stop.

2. The illegal 2004 activity of Madison River Communications, a phone company which was blocking users’ ability to access competitor Vonage’s internet-based phone services. They were fined $15,000 by the FCC.

3. AT&T got in on the unlawful action in 2012: limiting access to Apple’s FaceTime app to those customers who purchased a more expensive data plan. They eventually backed down before the FCC was forced to act.

4. Not to be outdone, Verizon in 2007 decided to censor pro-choice text messages sent across their SMS network. This decision was swiftly criticized across the political spectrum–and then swiftly reversed.

Net neutrality, therefore, in its present state, is a regulation intended to curb potential abuses of corporate power by ISPs who seek to offer tiered pricing, regulate political content they might disagree with, or single-out certain users or applications and deny them access.

The extent of the FCC’s authority over ISPs, however, is an open question currently subject to varied legal wrangling on all sides of the issue. Thus, net neutrality is in an ever-precarious state of being. Which brings us to today.

President Trump’s appointed FCC Chairman, Ajit Pai, began the process of compromising net neutrality just a few months after taking office.

In a 2-1 vote along partisan lines–the FCC is nonsensically straitjacketed by a rule that no more than three of its five members may come from the same political party–earlier this year, the FCC decided to review the Obama-era policy on net neutrality.

[image via ; video courtesy The Hill]

Follow Colin Kalmbacher on Twitter: @colinkalmbacher

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