What Is ‘Net Neutrality’? A Primer Before Thursday’s Big Vote

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If you are mystified as to why artists like Eddie Vedder and an array of TV showrunners are suddenly all worked up about Internet freedom, the answer lies in the term “net neutrality.”

They are words you are liable to hear over and over again as the FCC weighs what rules to put in place to guide what Internet service providers (e.g., Comcast, AT&T, Verizon, etc.) can and cannot do when it comes to delivering content to consumers.

The concept behind net neutrality is that ISPs should treat all of that content equally — no blocking, no slowing down traffic — so that the Internet has few, if any, barriers to entry. Just as consumers who pick up a phone landline can, with a high degree of certainty, be assured that their call will reach the number they are calling, so too should a user be able to easily access any website they seek on the Internet.

The fear behind net neutrality is that, without some kind of rules in place, the Internet will evolve into a pay-for-play system where popular services like Netflix and Amazon shell out big bucks to ISPs to get superior delivery to consumers while non-paying startups are left with slower and spotty service, making it difficult for them to make a mark.

ISPs have long argued that net neutrality is a “solution in search of a problem”: There have been relatively few cases where an Internet provider has slowed or blocked traffic.

But advocates of robust rules fear that left unchecked, the Internet will evolve into a medium where big media is the gatekeeper. To make their point, they need only cite the history of the cable business: Go back 30 years and multichannel providers were promising things like interactivity, vibrant local programming and innovative in-home technologies. But while there’s certainly more channels, the landscape is one of tiers and channel bundles with significant barriers to entry. It’s a big hurdle for any startup or independent channel to gain carriage on any major system.

With that in mind, here’s a primer on what is next:

Why is the FCC tackling this now?

If the past is any guide, net neutrality is the third rail in tech policy circles. Like Social Security or health care, any changes stir up emotions — “don’t mess with my Internet” — that usually leave many dissatisfied.

The commission did have a set of rules in place, but in January, a federal appellate court invalidated the ones that had teeth, like provisions to prevent Internet providers from blocking or discriminating against content. The judges said that the FCC lacked authority to impose such rules, but they did suggest ways to rewrite them on more solid legal footing.

So FCC chairman Tom Wheeler has set out to do just that. The trouble is, a proposal he outlined last month stood out not for what it would prevent but for what it would allow.

His proposal would still bar ISPs from blocking content, but instead of also barring discrimination, it would still enable Internet service providers to enter into pacts with content companies for faster delivery, a concept called “paid prioritization.” Such deals would still be subject to FCC scrutiny, but they would be measured by whether they were “commercially reasonable.”

That set off a storm of protest — letters, emails, even picketers camped outside the agency — and this week, Wheeler has offered revisions designed to make it more difficult for Internet “fast lanes,” i.e., paid prioritization.

He’s also proposing that the FCC give more consideration to just banning paid prioritization outright.

Wheeler is undoubtedly between a rock and a hard place: stronger language in the rules risks being shot down in the courts. The FCC has a host of other priorities, like a plan to auction off broadcast spectrum, and net neutrality could easily bog the agency down for months or even years. So his staff has argued that his plan has the advantage of more quickly getting new rules in place.

Nevertheless, advocates of net neutrality contend that the surest way for the FCC to establish its authority would be to declare the Internet a “common carrier” service, like the phone company or other utility — what is termed “Title II,” for its reference point in the Communications Act. The D.C. Circuit found fault with the FCC’s previous approach because its rules were like those imposed on a common carrier, even though the FCC had classified the Internet as an information service.

Sure, this is getting into the weeds of regulatory process, but it is where the flashpoint of the debate is now: After the protest over his initial proposal, Wheeler promised to give greater consideration to the idea of classifying broadband as Title II. Internet service providers and congressional Republicans warn that it would surely stifle innovation, as the FCC would have greater oversight over the Internet, even over such things as pricing. But advocates of net neutrality say it should be a real possibility if the goal is robust rules.

Don’t Internet service providers already charge subscribers for different speeds of service?

Yes. The concept of net neutrality hasn’t been to prevent Internet service providers fr0m offering different plans for different speeds, but to deliver content to consumers at equal rates. The idea is that doing otherwise would give advantage to those who pay up and disadvantage those who don’t. And the FCC’s rules haven’t prevented ISPs fr0m charging subscribers based on how much data they use. Such “usage based” pricing is not the norm for the wired Internet, but it is for wireless, and companies like Comcast have been experimenting with implementing such a model for their subscribers.

Didn’t Netflix just make a deal with Comcast to deliver its content?

Yes, but it was over something called interconnection. Wheeler says that this is a separate issue from net neutrality, but it’s something the FCC is studying. Essentially, what Netflix did was make a deal with Comcast to guarantee that the latter would have the capacity to carry its signal the last mile to the consumer. Netflix had complained that its signal was being degraded on Comcast systems because of congestion, and that it was essentially forced to pay up to ensure that its streaming was improved. Its CEO, Reed Hastings, has argued that such a situation should be regulated by net neutrality rules, and that Comcast is trying to carve out a new revenue stream for such “interconnection” while other ISPs have not made such demands. Comcast, however, says that Netflix is trying to force it, and all of its subscribers, to bear the cost of bandwidth-heavy streaming of movies and TV shows.

Are studios in favor of net neutrality or against it?

Officially, they have no opinion, probably because the companies are not on the same page when it comes to whether stringent rules would help or hurt their business. When the issue was last debated in 2010, their major shared concern was that net neutrality rules applied only to legal content. Their worry was that if such language wasn’t otherwise specified, ISPs would have a difficult time taking action against piracy. That isn’t the focus of this debate, even though the outcry features many of the same players who weighed in when Hollywood studios were pushing anti-piracy legislation that stalled out in the face of an Internet-led protest.

Will the rules apply to wireless services?

That is still open for debate. The FCC’s previous rules were weaker for wireless services than they were for the wired Internet.

What will the FCC be doing on Thursday?

This is where it gets confusing. The FCC is not voting on Thursday  to impose rules. They will be voting on whether to formally place the proposal out for public comment. Up to now, Wheeler’s proposal has been described only in broad outlines. The actual language hasn’t been released publicly. That will come on Thursday, if the FCC votes to move forward. After that, there will be 60 days for the filing of public comments, and another 60 days for responses. Then there will be a period of revisions. Wheeler’s goal is to have something in place by the end of the year.

What happens if the FCC does nothing?

There will be no net neutrality rules that prevent discrimination or blocking. That’s why Wheeler bristles at the criticism that he’s “gutting” net neutrality, as the D.C. Circuit has already done just that.