Jun 11, 2018

10 Things You Need to Know About Net Neutrality

Brent Skorup Senior Research Fellow

1. The definition of net neutrality has changed over time.

Professor Tim Wu coined the term in 2003 to summarize non-discrimination rules for internet service providers (ISPs). Key parts of net neutrality include preventing ISPs from blocking specific content, allowing paid prioritization of some content, or ‘throttling’ (intentionally slowing down) content.

More recently, however, the term has become almost synonymous with the Federal Communication Commission’s 2015 “Open Internet Order.” This policy issue is perplexing because this 2015 “net neutrality” Order allows ISPs to block online content.

 

2. From 1996 to 2015, internet services and the digital economy flourished because of a national policy that the Internet should be “unfettered by Federal or State regulation.”

In 1996, a Republican Congress and President Bill Clinton approved legislation largely shielding the Internet and Internet services from federal and state regulators. Over nearly 20 years, that standard has been a key reason why the US became the global leader in technology investment and the app economy.

 

3. The 2015 net neutrality regulations from the FCC wouldn’t make net neutrality supporters happy.

The FCC’s 2015 Open Internet Order actually allowed ISPs to filter content and the Order regulated filtered Internet services less than conventional Internet services. This is ironic, because a fear that ISPs would unfairly or secretly filter content has been one of the driving fears of the net neutrality political movement.

 

4. There are times when Internet “fast lanes” make sense and benefit consumers.

There are plenty of good reasons for some Internet services to be prioritized over others. For starters, the internet has never been completely neutral, and that’s a good thing. Sometimes, this means something as simple as a broadband provider prioritizing a phone call so it can continue uninterrupted even if many people are streaming high-bandwidth video on the same network. Other times, it’s something as important as making sure that a telemedicine video chat between a doctor and a patient goes smoothly. Importantly, allowing the creation of new fast lanes may even spur additional network infrastructure investment among industries hoping to use them.

 

5. Net neutrality regulations won’t solve ISP monopoly concerns (and they could make them worse).

Net neutrality regulates Internet traffic management, not ISP competition. The FCC noted in its 2015 Open Internet Order that its net neutrality rules “are not designed to deal with the acquisition or maintenance of market power or its abuse.” Concentrated market power is a legitimate concern, especially in some areas, but anti-trust policies are a better way to address anti-competitive ISPs.

 

6. Net neutrality is contentious, but there is bipartisan support for other internet issues that policymakers could explore.

There is much more bipartisan support for the FCC to take steps to improve broadband deployment and to auction spectrum for wireless broadband uses. Focusing on concrete steps like relying on private broadband investment, making broadband deployment cheaper and faster, and creating technology vouchers for underserved users can improve broadband access.

 

7. Some states have begun exploring their own version of net neutrality bills, but they likely violate the law.

The net neutrality movement has shifted to the states and several are exploring ways to regulate the Internet. State regulation of a global, borderless network would balkanize the Internet and damage interstate commerce, which is why Internet regulation has remained a federal matter for twenty years. It’s unlikely that state regulations, if passed, would survive judicial review.

 

8. Everyone agrees that the internet should be free, open, and innovative, but people disagree on what those terms mean and how to get there.

Supporters of the 2015 Open Internet Order believe that common carriage regulation is necessary to keep the Internet open and innovative. Supporters of the 2017 Restoring Internet Freedom Order believe that light-touch regulation should be restored and that common carriage regulations for the Internet will harm innovation and investment. It’s important to remember that both sides are largely interested in the same outcomes, they just have different views on how to get there.

 

9. While Internet deregulation is US policy, Internet companies and Internet service providers are subject to federal and state competition and consumer protection laws.

Until 2015 when the FCC temporarily took over regulatory authority, the Federal Trade Commission reviewed ISP practices and enforced consumer protection, competition, and privacy laws online. In December 2017, the FCC voted to eliminate its 2015 regulations and restore regulatory and competitive oversight to the Federal Trade Commission. State attorneys general also have authority to enforce state competition and consumer protection laws against ISPs and tech companies.

 

10. The FCC for years has been distracted from increasing broadband deployment by focusing on hypothetical harms and net neutrality regulations.

Consumers want broadband competition, lower prices, and new Internet services. The decade-long debate about net neutrality has led to years of litigation and several policy reversals, which has been a significant distraction from the FCC’s core competencies, like auctioning spectrum and improving broadband investment and deployment. In 2017, the FCC voted to rescind the 2015 net neutrality regulations and, in turn, created the Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee to advise the FCC on how to improve ISP competition and broadband deployment in rural and underserved areas.

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