The Free Internet Project

net neutrality

Revisiting the Net Neutrality debate in U.S. ahead of 2020 Election

With the COVID-19 pandemic, people are in their homes more than ever. Whether it be jobs, school, or recreation, the internet is being used more than ever before, as the New York Times reported. The pandemic has pushed society to rely on online technologies, including professional video calls, virtual interviewing, and complex educational courses completely online. Though most of us take the internet’s speed and extensive supply of content on almost all topics for granted, the rules for Internet access providers are controversial. 

The main area of contention is whether the government should require Internet access providers (e.g., Comcast, Verizon) to abide by principles of net neutrality. Net neutrality “is the principle that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) equitably provide consumer access to any legal online content and application, regardless of the source.” Thus, under net neutrality, ISPs including entities like Verizon, AT&T, and Comcast Xfinity “cannot block or slow legal content flowing through their networks" or show favoritism to some websites over others. When net neutrality is discussed by the government and ISPs there are three main actions that are in question: blocking, throttling, and paid prioritization. Blocking refers to an ISP’s ability to prevent its customers from accessing content from legal sources. For example, if Verizon intentionally blocks its customers from seeing the AT&T website. Throttling is when an ISP slows or interferes with the transmission of content a customer is searching for. For example, if AT&T only allows a customer to see half of a website or makes the loading so slow that the customer chooses not to go on it. Throttling tends to go hand-in-hand with the third action called paid prioritization which is when an ISP charges additional fees to content providers if they want their content to be quickly delivered to their customers. For example, if AT&T charges CNN a prioritization fee then AT&T will ensure CNN can be quickly accessed. Also, this could include throttling of competing news outlets’ websites and slowing down customers’ access to them in order to prioritize CNN.

FCC’s Regulatory Structure

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is the government entity that monitors the ISPs’ actions and they strategize how best to protect consumers in the internet space. The level of transparency ISPs have to meet in relation to blocking, throttling, and paid prioritization depends on what the FCC requires. The president of the United States chooses who become the chairman of the FCC, therefore the entity’s actions tend to be far from apolitical and change depending on who is in office.

The initial rules governing the telecommunications world were established in 1934 with the Communications Act. The FCC was given the responsibility of overseeing and regulating “telephone, telegraph, and radio communication.” Later, this was updated to technologies such as cable, broadcasting, and satellite television. Within the Communications Act, two regulatory frameworks were established: Information Services and Telecommunication Services (also known as Common Carriers). Information services are “platforms that generate, store, transform, retrieve, and process information via telecommunications.” Information services are given lighter regulations as compared to common carriers. Common carriers are “services transmitting energy for hire, including telecommunication services.” These carriers have historically faced more regulation similar to gas, electric, and telephone providers. These regulations include limitations on prices and the nature of the services provided.

Regulatory Framework Under President Obama

In 2010, the FCC established the Open Internet Order, which included new rules that were meant to provide broad internet access and create a “neutral network.” This order required ISPs to be completely transparent about any and all “blocking and unreasonable discrimination of content” that they were engaging in. An Internet Advisory Committee was established within the FCC that would monitor the ISPs and enforce the rules. Challenge to the Open Internet Order was brought claiming that ISPs were information services and therefore wrongfully heavily regulated. The DC Circuit Court upheld this challenge and ruled that information services cannot be regulated like this. Also, the anti-blocking and nondiscrimination rules were ruled too restrictive for information services. However, the transparency requirement was upheld. 

Afterwards, the FCC revised their policy and in 2015 issued the “Net Neutrality Rules for Open Internet" under FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler. This policy held ISPs to the same standard as telephone companies and therefore, established them as common carriers, which can be regulated to a greater extent. This order prohibited ISPs from any blocking throttling, or paid prioritization. It also established general conduct standards to protect consumers from discriminatory practices as well as continued to enforce transparency rules. The DC Circuit Court ruled this new policy lawful due to ISPs being categorized as common carriers. For a timeline of net neutrality under the Obama administration, visit here.

Regulatory Framework Under President Trump

Shortly after President Trump’s election, the new FCC leadership under Chairman Ajit Pai proceeded to dismantle the prior net neutrality rules. In 2017, a new FCC order titled "Restoring Internet Freedom" was issued. It reclassified ISPs as information services, therefore shielding them from extensive regulation. It also eliminated any rules prohibiting blocking, throttling, and paid prioritization, however transparency regarding these practices is still required. The FCC also gave the Federal Trade Commission the authority to take action against any terms of service violations by the ISPs, thus almost completely eliminating the FCC’s regulatory power. The Trump administration claims that any state interference in the ISPs’ work would go against the federal regulatory framework and be too controlling of the industry. The D.C. Circuit upheld the FCC's repeal of net neutrality, but remanded the case for consideration of several issues.

Since this policy was established, many net neutrality advocates, consumer groups, and other concerned individuals have tried to sue the FCC. Also, states such as California, Oregon, Vermont, and Washington have enacted their own net neutrality rules that promote more government regulation on the ISPs that are providing services in their states. However, the federal government is challenging California's net neutrality law.

Regulatory Framework Proposed by the Biden Campaign

Former Vice President Biden’s campaign crafted a task force document with Senator Bernie Sanders and other left-leaning individuals to create an internet plan that restores net neutrality. As reported by Gizmodo, Biden has committed to investing $20 billion in rural broadband internet access and he believes that more public investment in broadband infrastructure can benefit Americans from all backgrounds. If he is elected, Biden promises to re-establish the rules prohibiting blocking, throttling, and paid prioritization, most likely through the reclassification of ISPs as common carriers. Though as president Biden would not have direct say over net neutrality, he will be able to choose the new FCC chairman who aligns with his policy goals.

Regardless of your political alignment, access to the internet has become more important than ever. Whether the U.S. government should adopt net neutrality is a controversy that divides the two presidential candidates and two political parties. 

--written by Mariam Tabrez


U.S. Federal Communications Commission votes to repeal net neutrality law


On December 14, 2017, the United States Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted to repeal Obama's net neutrality protections. These now-eliminated protections include barring internet providers from slowing down or blocking access to online content, and prohibiting internet providers from promoting their own content. Ajit Pai, Chairman of the FCC, stated "[the repeal] is not going to destroy the internet. It is not going to end the internet as we know it. It is not going to kill democracy. It is not going to stifle free expression online."

Others, have voiced strong opinions against the repeal. "This is a matter of enormous importance with significant implications for our entire economy and therefore merits the most thorough, deliberate, and thoughtful process that can be provided," stated Maine Senators Susan Collins, Republican, and Angus King, independent. The FCC also received millions of comments supporting current net neutrality protections.

States have voiced their stance against the FCC's net neutrality protection repeals. New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman has declared intentions to sue to stop the FCC’s rollback of net neutrality, stating "We will be filing a claim to preserve protections for New Yorkers and all Americans. And we’ll be working aggressively to stop the FCC’s leadership from doing any further damage to the internet and to our economy.” Washington State Attorney Bob Ferguson also announced his intention to take action, stating "Today, I am announcing my intention to file a legal challenge to the FCC’s decision to roll back net neutrality, along with attorneys general across the country." Other states, including Oregon, Illinois, Iowa, and Massachusetts, will join the lawsuit as well.

Mark Zuckerberg appeals to India before key decision on platform, amid protests of net neutrality violation

Ahead of a key decision by India's telecommunications regulatory body, Mark Zuckerberg wrote a blog post in the Times of India to defend his nonprofit, which provides free (but limited) Internet access to under-served areas.  The service is called "Free Basics," which enables users to access the Internet but only for a limited number of apps, such as weather, Wikipedia, and, yes, Facebook. Other app developers can apply to to be included in Free Basics.   

India's Department of Telecommunications issues report in favor of net neutrality

This week, India's Department of Telecommunications (DoT) issued its report in favor of net neutrality. [Download]  One of the more controversial aspects of the report involves over the top services (OTT), such as VoIP apps Skype and WhatsApp that enable people to make calls over the Internet.  The panel recommended taking a bifurcated approach to OTT services: regulating apps that enable local and national calls in India (in competition with and cheaper than local carriers), but not regulating apps with respect to international calls and messaging.   

India's government will decide the final policy after receiving comments from the telecom industry. 

Mark Zuckerberg defends nonprofit's limited Internet service from criticisms of conflict with net neutrality

In April 2015, Mark Zuckerberg visited India to help promote his nonprofit's efforts to provide Internet access to the billions of people around the world (two thirds of the world's popoulation) who still lack Internet access.  The nonprofit provides a smartphone app with free Internet access that is limited to several programs, including Facebook (minus the ads): "The app provides free basic services in markets where internet access may be less affordable.

FCC net neutrality rule PDF download

The FCC issued its net neutrality rule in a 400 page document titled "Open Internet FCC-15-24A1." The rule itself is only 8 pages, but there is a lot of explanation. The rule can be downloaded by clicking here

FCC Chairman Wheeler follows Pres. Obama's lead and proposes strong net neutrality rule in U.S.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, following the lead of Pres. Barack Obama, proposed a strong rule to protect net neutrality.  As Wheeler explains in a Wired article, he will seek the FCC to reclassify broadband service as a telecommunications service subject to common carrier requirements under Title II of the Communications Act of 1934

Net Neutrality Debate Hits Turning Point as Pres. Obama Comes out with Strong Plan to Protect Net Neutrality

After months of standing on the sidelines in the contentious debate over whether to adopt net neutrality in the United States, President Barack Obama has finally spoken.  The timing is pretty late, but it may well be that the President was waiting until after the mid-term elections to take a stand on what would be a controversial decision regardless of which way the President came out.  Yesterday, the President gave a full-throated endorsement of adopting a principle of net neutrality that would forbid companies from creating paid fastlanes on the Internet for those companies that can afford it.

Blog Search

Blog Archive