What Is the Net Neutrality Debate?

Network neutrality has been a highly debated subject worldwide since technological advancements expanded to the Internet. Whether or not the government should play a part in its regulation and restriction is a key piece of the net neutrality controversy. The issue is complex and contains several moving pieces. Here are the pros, cons, and other key information surrounding the net neutrality debate in the United States.

What is net neutrality?

Net neutrality by definition is the ability for people to have unrestricted and equal Internet access. Also known as the open Internet, it limits the ability of Internet service providers (ISPs) – companies that provide people with access to the Internet – to charge users for access to content or to push certain content over others by slowing down the speed at which it is provided to the people.

Simply put, Internet neutrality serves as the checks and balances of the Internet and companies. It makes the world wide web a more level playing field for smaller ISPs and avoids the monopolization of the Internet.

A graphic depicting the competing interests of net neutrality - users' access to the Internet for free versus greater payouts for Internet service providers and other important parties.

An example of the logic of net neutrality would be if a university decided to drop standardized tests from its application process to increase its enrollment rates and make college more available to those who might not otherwise be accepted based on lower test scores. Apply that to net neutrality, and you get the dropping of restrictions on certain content to make the Internet more widely accessible.

What is the net neutrality debate?

The net neutrality debate, in short, is the discussion of whether or not Internet access should be considered a public service or a private one. Those who support net neutrality believe that the Internet should remain free and open as it is, and they believe that regulations would hinder the flow of ideas and honest exchanges. Many regular users, nongovernment organizations, and software or Internet companies support net neutrality.

On the other hand, opponents of the concept believe that government legislation of the Internet damages potential economic growth. Many Internet service providers are opponents of net neutrality, preferring that providers offer priority models for those willing to pay more.

The history of net neutrality

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) began directing its attention to Internet regulation after passing the Telecommunications Act of 1996. The ruling confirmed their jurisdiction over Internet providers. In 2002, the FCC stated that broadband Internet was an information service, making it more difficult to regulate.

Following the 2002 decision, in 2005, the FCC proposed Open Internet Principles. It stressed that ISPs treat all Internet traffic equally, furthering their difficult management properties.

Seeing the difficulties in management from 2005 onward, 2014 brought about new net neutrality rules proposed by the FCC. They hoped to allow providers to handle their traffic in what they called a commercially reasonable manner. But in 2016, the Obama administration’s FCC established net neutrality laws, making it an official policy.

In 2017, under the Trump Administration, the United States faced a high-stakes net neutrality controversy. In it, the FCC voted to remove all net neutrality protections. Then, in 2018, they officially repealed all net neutrality laws.

Today, the court upholds its 2017 decision with the Net Neutrality Act, and net neutrality has not been restored on the federal level. Certain states have established individual net neutrality protections within the FCC’s parameters, but full restoration of Internet neutrality on the state level is not permitted.

Some nations still have net neutrality protections, such as Russia, South Korea, Canada, Mexico and Switzerland. However, the United States, China, New Zealand, Portugal, and Australia do not.

Title II and net neutrality

Title II became an extremely relevant topic during the 2017 Internet neutrality controversy. The Title is a portion of the Communications Act of 1934 that issues regulations specific to certain technologies, like radios and phones.

When Title II was first established, it was void of any mention of the Internet because it did not yet exist. This was the problematic part of Title II. As society gradually became more technological, the Title did not change with the times. It continued to actively exclude the Internet from its regular regulation revisions.

After a revamp of requirements, Title II defined the Internet and phone companies and the services they offer as “common carriers." "Common carriers" means companies that transport goods from the owner to the customer.

This meant that the FCC had legal authority over common carriers and could instill certain regulations upon their companies. As a result, the FCC, under net neutrality rules, mandated common carriers to provide equal and indiscriminate access to all Internet services in a fair exchange of “goods," meaning open Internet access.

Net neutrality pros and cons

Advantages of net neutrality

Plenty of people still hope to see net neutrality reinstated into the FCC’s jurisdiction as there are several benefits to the concept. Here is a summary of the main three:

  1. Preservation of free speech. Perhaps an obvious benefit of free and equal Internet access is the protection of free speech. When people can share, respond, engage, purchase and learn independently of others’ input, it enables free speech and thought. The unrestricted Internet allows for unrestricted information seeking and imparting, fueling an age-old American principle.
  2. Protection of customers. Net neutrality also protected consumers, allowing them to utilize the Internet more freely without fear of becoming products themselves. Net neutrality provided customers with a choice in their viewing preferences and the speed at which their knowledge was obtained. Now, under different regulations, the decision has been given to ISPs, meaning it is the common carriers’ choice of what Internet traffic customers see and do not see.
  3. Promotion of competition. Net neutrality promotes competition, allowing smaller ISPs the opportunity to compete with big-name brands like AT&T, T-Mobile and Comcast. These brands possess a substantial percentage of the broadband market.
    That makes it less likely that a smaller common carrier could compete with their marketing or income without net neutrality in place. The economic playing field is potentially more level with the help of FCC regulations.

Disadvantages of net neutrality

While the benefits of Internet neutrality are noteworthy, there are downsides that make the net neutrality debate more controversial.

  1. Overreaching regulations. A popular claim in the net neutrality debate is that net neutrality regulations are overreaching and unnecessary, given that the Internet began and thrived in their absence. The free market can and should continue to expand and improve without the FCC’s regulations, some argue. They believe that the restrictions do more harm to the economy than good.
  2. Reduced investments in Internet services. Internet neutrality could also result in a decreased ability for customers to have access to the services common carriers provide due to less investment. A decrease in investment leads to higher costs for consumers. While the playing field might be level on the businesses’ end, it is an uphill battle for those of lower income who cannot afford an increase in cost but still require Internet access. It also gives ISPs the power to throttle bandwidth even further.
  3. Too much unrestricted Internet access. Some argue that with great and free access to the Internet comes great and unfortunate consequences. One of these is the increase in accessibility to illicit content. Companies claim if they can control which content and how much content customers choose to purchase, they can decrease accessibility to harmful content.

The net neutrality debate is still ongoing among political groups within America and abroad. Years after the formal decision, Internet users still go back and forth. Is it a useful tool for customers or an economy clogger for ISPs?

Be attentive to new information regarding the topic and consider the net neutrality pros and cons when evaluating the issue. The Internet changes fast, and so do its regulations or lack thereof.

Frequently asked questions

Why are people against Internet neutrality?

Some people are against Internet neutrality because they think it discourages investment in new Internet infrastructure. Many ISPs argue that the restrictions actually harm the economy.

What would happen without net neutrality?

Without Internet neutrality, Internet service providers would have the ability to block content, give preferential treatment to select users or websites, and slow speeds unless users paid additional fees.

Who controls Internet neutrality in the US?

The FCC, or Federal Communications Commission, controls Internet neutrality in the US.