Net neutrality: A cheat sheet

Do internet service providers have a right to throttle certain traffic? That's the question at the heart of net neutrality, and here's everything you need to know about it.

Let's say you're an AT&T customer, circa 2012. You're trying to use FaceTime on your Apple device and it just isn't working. It is, however, working great for customers on AT&T's new (and more expensive) shared data plan.

If that seems unfair you'll likely be a fan of net neutrality, which is defined as the belief that all data on the internet should be treated equally.

That definition hardly scrapes the surface of the ramifications, regulations, and opinions surrounding net neutrality, though, which is precisely what we're going to cover here.

Update on Dec. 14, 2017: Trump's FCC kills net neutrality, opening internet 'fast lanes' to ISPs. Watch TechRepublic for more coverage about the FCC's net neutrality vote.

Update on May 17, 2018: The US Senate voted to overturn the FCC's net neutrality repeal and preserve the current laws. The House of Representatives will now have to vote on the same reversal. This article will be updated once more information is known.

Executive summary

  • What is net neutrality? Net neutrality is the concept that all traffic on the internet should be treated equally, and that internet service providers (ISPs) should be prevented from taking any action to the contrary. Legal justification for net neutrality has been grounded in Title II of the Communications Act of 1934, which designates common carriers.
  • Why does net neutrality matter? Net neutrality matters because it has the potential to shape the future of the internet, and with it our access to knowledge. Without net neutrality regulations the internet could become a throttled, restricted, and tightly controlled landscape where both consumers and content providers exist to enrich ISPs.
  • Who does net neutrality affect? Net neutrality affects internet users, content providers, and internet service providers, and it does so in very different ways.
  • When is net neutrality happening? Net neutrality has been an issue since the earliest days of the internet. The FCC Open Internet Order of 2010 has been the major sticking point in the past several years, as has the FCC's passing of Title II Net Neutrality Rules in 2015. President Trump's pick to head the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), Ajit Pai, has expressed opposition to Title II classification and is seeking to roll back the 2015 decision.
  • How can I get involved in the net neutrality discussion? Contacting your representative is a good idea, but you should direct comments to the FCC during an open comment period, like right now.

SEE: All of TechRepublic's cheat sheets and smart person's guides

What is net neutrality?

To put it plainly, net neutrality is the ideal that all traffic on the internet—no matter what it is—deserves the same level of priority. Nothing can be throttled, given priority, blocked, or otherwise interfered with, which means it's on internet service providers to treat traffic fairly. In order to ensure that they do, proponents say, the government needs to regulate the internet.

Without net neutrality regulations, proponents argue, there will be nothing to stop ISPs and cellular providers from limiting traffic from competitors, imposing a la carte pricing for access to fast lanes, or forcing companies (like Netflix) to pay more for more bandwidth.

The basis of legal justification for enforcing net neutrality has been the Communications Act of 1934, specifically Title II of that act, which defines the concept of "common carriers."

According to the act, a common carrier is "any person engaged as a common carrier for hire, in interstate or foreign communication by wire or radio or in interstate or foreign radio transmission of energy...". Essentially, Title II classification would mean that ISPs aren't transmitting a proprietary product—internet traffic is a common, public service that companies deliver. UPS delivers packages that don't belong to them in the same way that internet packets don't belong to ISPs—they're a product they deliver.

If Title II is enough justification to regulate ISPs then section 202 is what stops them from being able to throttle or prioritize traffic:

"It shall be unlawful for any common carrier to make any unjust or unreasonable discrimination in charges, practices, classifications, regulations, facilities, or services for or in connection with like communication service, directly or indirectly, by any means or device, or to make or give any undue or unreasonable preference or advantage to any particular person, class of persons, or locality, or to subject any particular person, class of persons, or locality to any undue or unreasonable prejudice or disadvantage."

The other commonly argued basis for net neutrality comes from the Telecommunications Act of 1996, of which section 706 states:

"[Federal and state commissions] shall encourage the deployment on a reasonable and timely basis of advanced telecommunications capability to all Americans... by utilizing, in a manner consistent with the public interest, convenience, and necessity, price cap regulation, regulatory forbearance, measures that promote competition in the local telecommunications market, or other regulating methods that remove barriers to infrastructure investment."

Section 706 makes a much softer argument for net neutrality that leaves a lot open to interpretation, however. That has made it more popular with ISPs and telecommunications companies, which generally oppose Title II classification.

Additional resources

Why does net neutrality matter?

It's up for debate whether the failure of net neutrality would truly lead to the disasters that supporters predict or if it would increase innovation and internet investment as opponents argue.

Further arguments against net neutrality have stated that a lack of regulation has worked fine, but that ignores several incidents of abuse where companies blocked traffic, throttled speeds, and made life difficult for consumers because the companies had invested in competitive tech.

That's not the only example of companies granting preferential treatment—it continues to this day in the form of zero-rating, a practice in which ISPs refrain from charging customers for data use coming from certain sponsored applications. AT&T's Sponsored Data is the perfect example of zero-rating, and it gives sponsored products a huge leg up over competitors. Why pay for data when this app won't charge you?

Companies have a stake in protecting their investments, IP, and bottom line. If blocking a competitor or charging extra for a service can increase profits, companies are going to do so. It's already happened and there's no reason to assume it won't continue.

Additional resources

Who does net neutrality affect?

There isn't a person, or organization, that uses the internet that isn't affected by net neutrality. That said, how it affects consumers, ISPs, and content providers is quite different.

Consumers have already seen the effects of net neutrality, or a lack thereof, in cases like AT&T's blocking of FaceTime calls. Net neutrality regulations would have prevented that case from ever occurring, and if it had, AT&T would have been faced with fines and other penalties.

Content providers could suffer greatly without net neutrality regulations. Netflix's CEO Reed Hastings famously had a beef with Comcast, which zero-rated its Xfinity streaming app while leaving apps like Hulu, Netflix, and HBO Go's bandwidth utilization in place.

ISPs, on the other hand, have been generally opposed to net neutrality. They argue it would hamper infrastructure investment and innovation, two common talking points surrounding government regulation. Comcast has stated that it doesn't engage in throttling, preferential treatment, or zero-rating, yet previous examples in this article speak to the contrary. And just this January AT&T and Verizon were accused of violating net neutrality laws.

It's all well and good for telecom companies and ISPs to say they protect net neutrality, but their records up until now have been anything but in line with their messages.

Additional resources

When is net neutrality happening?

The term net neutrality has been around since 2003 when a paper published in the Journal of Telecommunications and High Technology Law outlined the concept along with describing instances of abuse by telecom companies in the years preceding it.

Since then a lot has happened with net neutrality. In 2004 the FCC outlined internet freedom guidelines in an attempt to control the internet without regulation, but by 2008 it was embroiled in a lawsuit with Comcast over the latter's throttling of BitTorrent traffic.

In 2010 the FCC passed the FCC Open Internet Order, which codified net neutrality and placed restrictions on ISPs. By 2014 a case with Verizon hampered the FCC's enforcement authority when the DC Circuit Court ruled in Verizon's favor, saying that ISPs weren't classified as common carriers.

Since then there has been a back and forth battle on classifying ISPs under Title II, or alternatively under section 706. The Trump administration's pick to head the FCC, Ajit Pai, is an opponent of net neutrality and has backed the introduction of a bill before Congress to permanently restrict the FCC's ability to enforce net neutrality. If passed it will likely be signed into law by President Trump.

Additional resources

How can I get involved in the net neutrality discussion?

There are several ways you can make your opinion on net neutrality, and the bill currently in Congress, known. No matter what side of the argument you're on you can call your representative and voice your opinion, or you can head over to the FCC's website and file a comment on FCC proceeding 17-108, titled Restoring Internet Freedom.

Contacting your representative about the congressional bill is important, but right now the ball is in the FCC's court. Chairman Pai is moving ahead with plans to remove Title II classification from ISPs, rendering the bill in Congress moot.

Whether you value net neutrality or not this is a major topic and could determine the future of the internet. Make your voice heard.

Additional resources

Image: iStock/mindscanner

About Brandon Vigliarolo

Brandon writes about apps and software for TechRepublic. He's an award-winning feature writer who previously worked as an IT professional and served as an MP in the US Army.

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