Net neutrality: What it is, and why it matters

Lauren Schneiderman
Protesters against the new net neutrality regulations demonstrate outside the Federal Communications Commission building on May 15.  

Federal regulators are about to vote on a bold new plan to institute net neutrality this week.
But despite the profound impact that the process may have on the future of the Internet, poll after poll shows that most Americans still don’t know what net neutrality is, or what the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is planning to do.
Here’s some help:
What is net neutrality?
Net neutrality is the idea that everyone should have equal and unfettered access to every website on the Internet.
Supporters have pushed for federal regulations that would prevent Internet service providers such as Comcast or Verizon from being able to block or slow down Web speeds for people visiting one site or another, as well as rules to block deals that would allow websites from paying more for quicker access to people online.
What is the FCC doing?
On Thursday, the FCC will vote to institute the toughest net neutrality rules the U.S. has ever seen.
The rules would reverse a 2002 decision to regulate high-speed broadband Internet connections as an “information service” and instead call it a “telecommunications service” similar to phone lines, over which it has more authority.
The rules will apply to people’s access to the Internet over both wired Internet connections and wirelessly through their phones and tablets.
They will also give the FCC the power to monitor how Web traffic is handed off between companies on the back end of the Internet — a technical process that was at the center of heated disputes between Netflix and various Web providers last year.
The plan is being loudly cheered by net neutrality proponents.
The 2002 move was “the worst vote” former FCC Commissioner Michael Copps saw during his decade at the agency, he told The Hill. Copps, a Democrat, is now a special advisor at the advocacy group Common Cause.
By comparison, the Thursday action will be “the best vote that the commission has cast probably in the last generation,” he said.
What will the rules mean for me?
At first, not too much.
It will likely take a couple of weeks or months for the rules to be formally issued and there is a chance that an impending lawsuit could put them on hold for the time being.
Once they do go into effect, supporters say they will provide a strong backstop against any abuse from people’s Internet service providers. That will make it possible for new young companies to thrive online, they say.
Consumers “can know that there’s a cop on the beat when it comes to high-speed Internet access, the openness of the networks and the ability of content providers to at least complain if they’re being squeezed,” said Susan Crawford, a co-director of Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society and a proponent of tough rules.
Critics, however, have raised alarms that they could also lead to new fees and taxes.  
Though there is a law currently in place to ban certain taxes on accessing the Internet, the new rule “explicitly leaves the door open” to “an array of federal and state taxes and fees” not covered under that law, according to Ajit Pai, a Republican FCC commissioner and strong critic of the rules.
An estimate from the Progressive Policy Institute has said that he rules could lead to a tax hit as high as $15 billion.

FCC officials pushing the new rules deny that they will lead to any new taxes. But because the rules have not yet been made public, it’s impossible to settle the question.
Major Internet service providers have also warned that the extra cost of complying with new rules could slow down their business plans, which might lead to slower Internet speeds over the long run.
Who’s against the rules?
Republicans and major Internet service providers, who claim that the new rules are likely to restrain their ability to grow and invest.
Many conservatives have objected to the notion of any type of regulation for Internet access, which they call a solution in search of a problem and an unnecessary government intrusion onto the Web.
Because the law undergirding the FCC’s authority is decades old, they also fear that the agency will saddle the Web with 1930’s-style regulations meant to limit railroads and other outdated services.
Is this the first time the FCC has tackled the issue?
The FCC wrote net neutrality rules in 2010, after President Obama made the issue a key part of his 2008 campaign. Those were tossed out by a top court last January, paving the way for the new rules.
Before that, the FCC tried to enforce a set of broad net neutrality principles and prevent Comcast from slowing traffic to BitTorrent, a file-sharing service. A court sided with Comcast in 2010.
Previous efforts were all based on the initial 2002 decision to treat broadband like an information service. Supporters say that the bold move to reclassify will protect the new rules when they inevitably are challenged in court.
What’s President Obama’s role?
The FCC is an independent agency, so Obama technically has no more influence than any other member of the public.
However, net neutrality has long been a priority of his, which many say has led to politicization of the issue in recent years.
Just a few days after the midterm elections in November, he called for the FCC to reclassify broadband Internet, as it is now doing.
That prompted criticism from Republicans who claim that the White House improperly leaned on the FCC. Multiple congressional committees have launched probes into the matter.

 What’s next?
Telecommunications companies are guaranteed to sue.
Michael Powell — the head of the National Cable and Telecommunications Association and the former chairman of the FCC back when it made the initial 2002 decision on how to classify broadband Internet — has said his group is “highly likely” to file a lawsuit.
The American Cable Association — which represents smaller Web companies — is also “considering a judicial remedy” if smaller companies are severely impacted, a spokesman said.
Because the rules have not yet been made public, it’s hard to handicap how a legal challenge might fare.
FCC officials have said they wrote the rules expecting a challenge. Supporters argue the agency is on firmer legal footing by reclassifying Internet service under Title II of the Communications Act.
Critics, however, question how it will reverse the last decade of its precedent. 
“You are going to see more legal gymnastics in this order than a Cirque du Soleil show on the Vegas strip,” said Lawrence Spiwak, president of the Phoenix Center think tank.
That battle could stretch on for months and could spill into 2017, when a new president takes office.
“The net neutrality issue will definitely extend into the next presidency,” said Robert McDowell, a former Republican commissioner.

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