Yesterday, President Obama waded into the ongoing—and somewhat confusing—debate about “net neutrality.” If you’re curious why this matters, or what “net neutrality” actually means, this explainer is for you.
What is “net neutrality”?
Net neutrality describes the idea that whoever provides you Internet access—for example, Comcast, Time Warner, Verizon, and so on—should treat all of your Internet traffic, or packets of data, the same way.
In the United States, the U.S. agency responsible with upholding laws related to net neutrality is the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which is based in Washington, D.C.
You referred to ‘treating all Internet traffic the same way.’ What does that mean?
Let’s say you use Hulu and Netflix, and often switch between the two to see what’s on. Supporters of net neutrality say that your broadband Internet service provider (ISP) should not be able to charge either Netflix or Hulu, or any other company that depends on the Internet, for a faster connection to you and other customers. Nor should the ISP be able to charge you more to access certain services.
Aren’t ISPs forbidden from doing that already, though?
Well, not exactly. It’s true that ISPs have been sued in the past for artificially throttling, or limiting the speed of, customers who use peer-to-peer software like BitTorrent. (I say “artificially” because there are many non-arbitrary reasons why some downloads are slower—for example, if you’re downloading a file from a server located on a different continent.) But a recent court ruling altered the net neutrality debate entirely.
The legal situation situation changed in January 2014, when the ISP Verizon successfully challenged a set of FCC regulations designed to implement net neutrality standards. A D.C. court gave Verizon’s broadband Internet service the leeway to disregard FCC rules regarding the blocking and/or “unreasonable discrimination” of Internet traffic.
Let’s back up a bit. What do net neutrality supporters want, exactly?
Sure. Generally speaking, supporters of net neutrality want the FCC to reclassify broadband ISPs as “common carriers,” a designation reserved for companies who are mandated by the government to provide the same service, without discrimination, to everyone. (Think about gas, or electricity, or landline telephone services.)
At present, broadband providers are classified as “information services,” which are not obligated to provide the same service to everyone. This was the crux of the aforementioned Verizon court case: Because Verizon was not classified as a “common carrier,” the FCC lacked the legal authority to regulate it like one.
What would reclassification accomplish?
Most significantly, classifying ISPs as common carriers would allow the FCC to ban what’s known as “paid prioritization.”
The term refers to ISPs charging third party companies for speedier access to those ISPs’ customers. So, say your ISP is Verizon, and you use both Twitter and Facebook. If Twitter pays Verizon to “prioritize” its traffic, and Facebook does not, you would likely experience faster speeds on Twitter: Its pages and apps would load more quickly, and more reliably, than Facebook. (This is what net neutrality supporters are talking about when they discuss “slow lanes” and “fast lanes” on the Internet.)
This arrangement obviously incentivizes both Twitter and Facebook to pay Verizon to prioritize their traffic. But both sites are able to pay Verizon in the first place because they’re already enormous companies, with plenty of money to burn.
Has this actually happened, though?
It has. The streaming site Netflix recently signed deals with Comcast and Verizon to increase the speed (and quality) of their streaming video on both providers’ networks. Netflix accomplished this by connecting their servers to the ISPs’ underlying physical infrastructure.
But doesn’t Netflix take up a lot of bandwidth? Why shouldn’t they pay more?
It’s true that Netflix consumes an enormous amount of bandwidth—up to 34% of U.S. traffic during certain hours. But supporters of net neutrality argue that, while a huge company like Netflix can afford to pay ISPs for increased streaming speed, the same arrangement would be untenable for a much smaller competitor. In other words, paid prioritization would stack the deck against any company trying to challenge the dominance of Netflix (or Facebook, or Twitter, or Google).
And what do opponents of net neutrality argue?
The arguments against net neutrality are generally founded on a suspicion of government regulation of commerce. Most specifically: Opponents argue that if broadband ISPs cannot collect fees from companies who take up an outsized portion of their bandwidth, they lose the incentive to invest in maintaining and upgrading their current infrastructure, which could hurt consumers.
So what has President Obama done, then?
On Monday, in response to a popular petition on WhiteHouse.gov, Obama announced that he was urging the FCC’s chairman, Tom Wheeler, to implement net neutrality rules by reclassifying ISPs as common carriers.
Should I know who Tom Wheeler is?
It wouldn’t hurt. Wheeler was appointed last year by the President, and previously served as the president of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, a private group which represents the interests of the cable broadband industry—which, again, is strongly opposed to implementing net neutrality. (The association flipped out after Obama’s announcement.)
Still, Wheeler greeted Obama’s letter fairly positively, writing that “we cannot allow broadband providers to cut special deals to prioritize Internet traffic.” But he’s also very concerned about being sued by the industry’s incumbents:
The reclassification and hybrid approaches before us raise substantive legal questions. We found we would need more time to examine these to ensure that whatever approach is taken, it can withstand any legal challenges it may face.
What happens now?
Obama does not have the authority to change the FCC’s rules, so we may be waiting on any kind of action or decision for the forseeable future. Still, many ISPs are already sounding the alarm about the potential ramifications of Obama’s effort.
“We disagree with the President’s statement that an open Internet can only be achieved by reclassifying broadband as a public utility,” Time Warner Cable CEO Rob Marcus said in a letter echoing his industry’s broader concerns with both Obama’s agenda and the larger debate about net neutrality. Indeed, whatever the FCC decides, and eventually implements, that debate is unlikely to end anytime soon.
Illustration by Jim Cooke