The Federal Communications Commission introduced new rules today preventing Internet service providers from creating Internet fast lanes or charging for preferential treatment.
Behind these rules is a long-standing principle called “net neutrality,” which has helped ensure that everyone is treated the same way online but which has come under intense scrutiny.
What is net neutrality all about?
Think about waiting in line. Sometimes, it feels like a sacred responsibility, with each line member poised to prevent cutting and ensure fairness. Other times, cutting is just part of the game, like when you’re at the airport and have to wait for every platinum, gold, and silver club member to board before taking your seat.
Imagine a world where big companies like Netflix and Google pay extra money to cut lines and give their users faster service. That’s what net neutrality rules are all about. Supporters of net neutrality think all online information should be treated equally — no cutting. Opponents argue that fast lanes and priority access would actually make the Internet better.
What is the FCC doing?
The FCC argues that net neutrality puts all Internet companies on the same footing, and in that way it helps support innovation and promote entrepreneurship.
For years, net neutrality was an unofficial but widely accepted standard. It became official in 2010, when the FCC passed a rule making it illegal for Internet service providers to block traffic or offer preferential treatment. Last January, however, that rule was struck down by a federal court, setting off a furious new debate and spurring the FCC to search for a new approach.
Today they voted to pursue one such new approach. It would reclassify Internet service providers as if they were phone companies, giving the FCC broad new authority to enforce net neutrality and regulate the behavior of Internet service providers.
As opponents have pointed out, the problem with this approach is that it subjects the Internet to a set of rules designed for a very different industry.
Who opposes net neutrality?
The cable companies, for one thing, but there are also plenty of Republicans in Congress who think the Internet would be better off if there were less regulation, not more.
To come back to the line-cutting analogy, there’s a reason people can cut at the airport: Frequent flyers are happy to pay for the privilege, and the airlines are just as happy to take their money. Were Congress to suddenly pass an “airport neutrality” rule requiring all passengers to be treated equally, that additional revenue would disappear, leaving the airlines with less money to invest in things like new planes and employee salaries.
The Internet has its own frequent flyers (Netflix and YouTube account for half of all Internet traffic). If service providers like Comcast and Time Warner were allowed to offer premium service at a premium price, the additional revenue could be used to upgrade equipment, expand broadband access, and improve Internet performance for everyone.
What happens next?
Theoretically, Congress could pass a bill to block net neutrality, but with President Obama favoring the idea, any such bill would likely be vetoed.
More likely is a shift to the courts, where the Internet service providers are expected to mount challenges to the FCC’s approach.
Are there any other big changes?
In the past, companies who provide Internet access for cellphones have been largely exempt from net neutrality rules. That will no longer be the case. The new FCC rules apply both to wired and wireless internet.
* Some of this material was drawn from a previous article.
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Evan Horowitz digs through data to find information that illuminates the policy issues facing Massachusetts and the U.S. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeHorowitz