“Net Neutrality” is a phrase and concept coined in 2002 by Columbia University Law Professor Tim Wu. “Net Neutrality” itself can be defined as one of two things: the set of official internet regulations adopted in 2015 by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) OR the philosophy that all internet data should remain free, equal, and have certain unalienable rights. If you’re discussing Net Neutrality, it’s important to clarify whether you’re discussing the 2015 regulations or the philosophy as a whole. You may find that you agree with the concept but disagree with its implementation. You may find you agree with neither, or both.

The 2015 FCC Regulations are laid out in this 400-page legal document. Some of the most significant elements of the FCC’s include the following:

  1. A ban on blocking – Internet Service Providers may not block users’ access to any legal internet content (Example: In what would have been considered a violation of the later Net Neutrality regulations, users of Metro PCS wireless internet in 2011 could not access any video streaming service except YouTube).
  2. A ban on throttling – Internet Service Providers may not “degrade” (slow down or speed up) users’ access to any legal internet content (Example: In 2014, Netflix accused Verizon of throttling or slowing Netflix streaming for Verizon users in order to prioritize Verizon’s own Pay-Per-View streaming service).
  3. A ban on paid prioritization – Internet Service Providers may not provide increased speed or access to content owners who pay extra fees (Example: In the previous example, Verizon would not be allowed to require Netflix to pay more for increased streaming speeds that would put them at a competitive advantage over other streaming services).
  4. A ban on unreasonable interference or disadvantage – Internet Service Providers may not do anything that the FCC deems unreasonable or a disadvantage to the consumer.
  5. Enhanced transparency – ISPs are required to provide consumers with an accurate representation of the services they will provide.

The hundreds of pages of additional regulations include specific information to determine when and how the FCC may intervene regarding possible infractions, classification of different uses of the internet, and the legality of the FCC’s jurisdiction in the Net Neutrality conversation.

The FCC’s decision to implement regulations in 2015 received significant amounts of both criticism and praise. Some believed that the organization was overstepping its mandate and threatening progress. Others regarded the policies as necessary to preserve freedom and equality, an “open internet.”

Summary: Net neutrality refers to the concept of internet regulations that are meant to keep the internet “open.” In 2015, a government organization called The Federal Communications Commission created a set of rules intended to protect an open internet.

What’s the history of the debate?

To a large degree, the underlying argument of the Net Neutrality debate can be traced to the basic tenets of the two primary political party systems in the United States: Big Government vs. Small Government. This debate has existed since the establishment of the American governmental system in the mid-to-late 1700s. Fans of the musical Hamilton may remember Democratic-Republican Thomas Jefferson’s fear of a national, centralized banking system (“If New York has debt / Why should Virginia bear it?”) Democratic-Republicans wanted to empower state governments; Federalists intended for the national government to hold more of the cards. 241 years later, a similar tug of war exists within our current political system.

Modern understandings of the motivations behind each of these movements can paint their champions in very different lights. Fans of early Federalism would likely argue that Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, and their compatriots stood for unity, patriotism, national pride, and shared responsibility. Critics might point to the meritocratic overtones of the movement: many Federalists favored a more centralized government to support their belief in the necessity of a wealthy, educated ruling elite. Similarly, early Democratic-Republicans like Thomas Jefferson can be seen as champions for governmental differentiation, emphasizing the importance of different policies for different states, created by and for the people who know their own experience. Some might argue that Democratic-Republicans were fundamentally unpatriotic, or just in favor of a different set of wealthy, educated, ruling elites.

At the time, both groups believed each other, in many ways, to be in direct opposition to the establishment of a new nation. Federalists believed Democratic-Republicans to be opposed to the national alliance that the revolution had attempted to create. Democratic-Republicans believed that a centralized seat of government was too similar to the very monarchy they had just escaped.

Over a period of a few hundred years of political and social evolution, the partisan ideologies of the United States can be over-simplified for our purposes to reflect a similar disagreement regarding the role of government in a flourishing society.

The dialogue surrounding Net Neutrality, for example, reflects these ideologies to a large degree.

To understand Net Neutrality as a philosophy, it may be necessary to zoom out and consider the Internet as a commodity, or saleable product. American society operates on a capitalist understanding of ownership. We believe that concrete things, like socks, or abstract things, like music, can belong to certain people. Money exists as part of a social contract between human beings. I can type a number into my cell phone, add a few pizza slice emojis, and hit “Send.”  I have just paid you for the pizza we shared, because you and I and the bank and the app designers have agreed that it is so.

Capitalism both works and doesn’t work because of something called the “free market.” Basic arguments for capitalism typically depend on the idea that competition, natural incentives, and the cycles of an unfettered economic system will self-regulate and create a better environment for both producers and consumers. As the internet is considered a product that can be sold, philosophical questions arise regarding how much it can and should be regulated.

The two prevailing arguments surrounding the FCC’s current re-evaluation of its 2015 regulations are, in many senses, deeply traditional. One side argues that the existing Net Neutrality regulations are dictatorial and limiting; this argument emphasizes the importance of market forces and competition in spurring innovation and growth. The other side believes that Net Neutrality regulations are necessary to protect consumers from big corporations who could take advantage without accountability. Both sides believe that someone cannot be trusted: one cannot bring themselves to trust the government; another cannot bring themselves to trust internet corporations.

The FCC itself is a large government organization that is managed and led by five commissioners, each appointed by the American president and confirmed by the Senate for a five-year term. There cannot be a party majority of more than three commissioners at a time.

In 2015, prompted by a Verizon lawsuit, an online petition, and encouragement from then-president Barack Obama, the FCC revisited existing policies to create what is now being defended and censured prominently under the term “Net Neutrality.”

In general, both supporters and detractors ostensibly agree on the importance of both innovation and consumer security. They just disagree on the means. Most broadly, critics of the 2015 regulations argued that:

  1. the FCC was stepping outside of its intended role to regulate communication
  2. the President’s public encouragement of the Net Neutrality regulations was inappropriate at best, or
  3. that the regulations as written would limit innovation rather than increasing it. Supporters of the 2015 Open Internet regulations believed that the rules, as written, would serve to protect American consumers from exploitation by large companies: restriction of freedom of speech, the creation of corporate monopolies, or the limitation of creativity as prescribed by affluence.

Whatever your stance on Net Neutrality and its implications on internet regulations, your life will likely be affected by decisions made in the coming weeks, as officials at various levels of government decide what to do with the FCC’s December 15 repeal of the 2015 rules. The repeal will come into effect slowly, and conversations surrounding the path to an open internet will continue to dominate the very subject being discussed: the internet itself.

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