Net Neutrality means applying well-established “common carrier” rules to the internet in order to preserve its freedom and openness. The goal of this is to prohibit network owners from manipulating information or discriminating against content providers by halting, slowing, or tampering with the transfer of data. To an extent, this keeps capitalism from interfering with the information we have access to online. A network carrier cannot prioritize your receipt of information from a site that pays them more over that of a smaller site that can’t afford to pay a bonus, or from an organization whose political views don’t align with their own. The actual term “Net Neutrality” was coined by Columbia University law professor Tim Wu in a 2003 paper about online discrimination.
Net Neutrality has been a contentious issue in the US since the early 1990s. However, Net Neutrality as we know it today was put into place under the Obama administration in 2015. This is the policy that was subsequently ruled against and dismantled under the Trump administration in 2017. However, as early as the same day this vote took place, legal and political battle broke out surrounding Net Neutrality issues, with many threatening to open lawsuits about the unconstitutional nature of the FCC’s repeal of the policies.
History of Net Neutrality
The debate on Net Neutrality has raged on since the internet’s infancy. Much of this began in July of 1999, when FCC Chairman William Kennard set the standard for a light regulatory touch. He was the first FCC chairman to suggest the agency should not subject broadband networks to the same stringent requirements applied to old telephone infrastructure. Kennard stated, “The Internet is really blossoming, but some policy-makers and politicians want to control it and regulate access to it. We should not try to intervene in this marketplace. We need to monitor the roll-out but recognize we don’t have all the answers because we don’t know where we’re going.”
In 2002, Republican Chairman Michael Powell of the FCC ruled that broadband internet was not a “telecommunications service” under the 1934 Communications Act, and therefore was a Title I “information service.” This meant that cable broadband services aren’t subject to utility-style, “common carrier” rules, and faced less stringent regulations.
In 2004, FCC Chairman Michael Powell introduced the “four internet freedoms” that he expected the broadband industry to preserve: Freedom to access content. Freedom to run applications, Freedom to attach Personal Devices, and Freedom to Obtain Service Plan Information.
The next several years were rife with various decisions questioning the classification of the internet as a Title I information service rather than a Title II telecommunications service. During this time, the stringency of Net Neutrality regulations came and went based on who held power in the FCC. In 2010, under Democrat Julius Genachowski, the FCC adopted its Open Internet Order, which put Net Neutrality rules officially under the rule of FCC regulation. In 2014, President Obama pressed the issue further, and in 2015, the FCC finally voted to classify broadband services as a Title II telecommunications service. At the time, Verizon and others threatened to sue, because they felt they should not be governed as Title II and the government was being given too much control over their business practices. In fact, some telecommunications companies did sue the FCC, but the court ruled in favor of the FCC and the new classification stood. In 2017, under President Trump, the FCC voted to overturn this ruling, which led to much public outcry. This motion was headed up by FCC Chairman Ajit Pai and Commissioner Brendan Carr. Pai is a former Verizon lawyer, giving many people reason to question his motives. Many are suing for the unconstitutional nature of this decision, stating that it allows censorship and therefore prevents their freedom of speech.
The FCC’s new regulations drop the common-carrier status for broadband providers, and release restrictions on blocking or throttling content. Under these regulations, ISPs are only required to disclose information about their network-management practices. The Federal Trade Commission now holds the responsibility of protecting consumers from alleged net neutrality violations. But the FTC is only an enforcement agency: It can’t create new rules, so unless a net neutrality violation is also illegal under existing fair-competition laws, there’s not much the agency can do. This leaves many concerned that ISPs will create fast lanes to feed consumers more information from companies that pay them bonuses, and less information from those that don’t. Were this to occur, it would effectively alter the information provided to the public on any given issue.
Is Net Neutrality Necessary?
While much of the talk about networks manipulating data may sound like paranoid conjecture, there are actual multiple cases which advocates of Net Neutrality cite as evidence of its necessity.
In August of 2007, the group Pearl Jam performed in Chicago. During the performance, AT&T censored certain lyrics from lead singer Eddie Vedder. As he sang “George Bush, leave this world alone” and “George Bush, find yourself another home,” the ISP shut off the sound, denying viewers the complete exclusive coverage they were promised. After the censorship had caused an uproar, AT&T blamed it on an external website contractor hired to screen the performance, referred to it as a mistake, and pledged to restore the unedited version of Vedder’s appearance online.
Also in 2007, Comcast discriminated against an entire class of online activities by blocking file transfers from customers using popular peer-to-peer networks such as BitTorrent, eDonkey, and Gnutella. Nationwide tests conducted by the Associated Press confirmed these actions, and they were proven not to be related to network congestion. Critics of Comcast noted that Comcast hopes to sell online video itself, and therefore blocking applications that are used to trade videos is in its best interest from a business perspective. The FCC subsequently took action against Comcast for this abuse; Comcast stopped the throttling but also challenged the order in court and won, leading to a crisis in enforcement of network neutrality.
Verizon Wireless cut off access to a text-messaging program by the pro-abortion-rights group NARAL in 2007. The group used the program to send messages to its supporters. Verizon stated it would not service programs from any group “that seeks to promote an agenda or distribute content that, in its discretion, may be seen as controversial or unsavory to any of our users.” Verizon Wireless reversed its censorship of NARAL only after widespread public outrage.
In 2005, the Canadian company Telus, which was involved in a bitter labor dispute, blocked its internet subscribers from accessing a website run by the union that was on strike against Telus.
These types of actions are what those opposing the repeal of Net Neutrality in 2017 (and now into 2018) are trying to prevent. Many believe that the repeal of the 2015 regulations could lead to severe violations of freedom of speech via the internet.
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