What is Net Neutrality?

The argument over whether the internet should be treated more as a utility, or something else, has persisted

By Kellyn Brown

Last week, in a first among states, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock signed an executive order requiring telecommunications companies to abide by net neutrality standards to receive state contracts. Two days later, the governor of New York did the same thing.

Why does this matter?

Well, following the Federal Communications Commission’s decision last month to rid the internet of neutrality regulations, advocates for the rules were apoplectic. Opponents, on the other hand, who thought the federal government had overreached, dismissed concerns over online access as overblown. Meanwhile, the vast majority of the general public shrugged, wondering what all the fuss was about.

Well, here’s how we got here:

While net neutrality had been discussed prior, the issue rose to prominence when Vonage — an internet telephone service provider — sued Madison River for denying its customers from using Vonage’s services. You see, Vonage was directly competing against Madison River’s own landline phone service.

In 2005, the FCC stepped in and Madison backed off in what Wired magazine called “the first proven case of a broadband provider violating the principle of network neutrality.”

But the argument over whether the internet should be treated more as a utility, or something else, persisted. In 2008, following a complaint by BitTorrent accusing Comcast of slowing down its traffic, a federal judge ruled that the FCC could not regulate Comcast because it wasn’t categorized as a Title II service, which covers utilities like landline phones and electricity.

Even though Comcast backed down in its dispute with BitTorrent, the gray area of what was allowed by internet service providers continued. That is, until 2015, when the FCC reclassified broadband as a “common carrier” under Title II rules. Thus, net neutrality was written into law. That is, until last month when it was overturned in a charge led by newly appointed FCC Chairman Ajit Pai.

In an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, Pai, who was formerly employed by Verizon, argued that the “burdensome regulation has failed consumers and businesses alike.” He added that forcing internet service providers to comply with Title II rules has made internet more expensive and stifled broadband network expansion. He has also made the case that rules in place during the administrations of former President Bill Clinton and George W. Bush were adequate.

Others agree. Adam Lashinksy wrote in Fortune magazine that the idea of overturning net neutrality would stifle innovation is laughable. He also wondered why giant tech companies need the government’s protection, writing, “Google, Facebook, and especially Netflix don’t need our help dominating the market.”

Perhaps not, but before the rules were in place, service providers had throttled internet speed for popular applications, such as Apple’s FaceTime, Google’s Wallet and Skype. And while proponents of market-based regulation cite increased competition as a deterrent to abuse, Popular Science points out that about “48 percent of people in the U.S. don’t actually have more than one choice when it comes to home broadband.”

So, what happens next?

After the new rules go into effect this spring, expect a dispute to erupt between a tech company and a service provider. Meanwhile, more states are expected to implement their own net neutrality rules, even though the FCC’s repeal pre-empted states and cities from imposing rules that contradicts its own plan.

In other words, stay tuned.