Net Neutrality: What You Need To Know
The One Thing You Need To Understand About Net Neutrality
The fight to save the Internet as we know it hangs on what seems like a technicality: Should Internet service providers (ISPs) be treated more like telephone companies or like email providers? The policy wonk term for this issue is "reclassification."
You might think it doesn't matter, but it actually makes a huge difference. The question of how ISPs should be classified lies at the heart of the current debate over net neutrality, or the idea that all web traffic should be treated equally. If the web were legally regulated as if it were a phone company, it would be easier for the government to enforce net neutrality. Consumer advocates are pushing the Federal Communications Commission in that direction.
At a hearing on Thursday, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler left open the possibility that the Internet could be reclassified as a public utility.
Here's what that means.
Wait, back up. What’s the FCC have to do with this? Doesn't Google run the web at this point?
The FCC regulates all U.S. communications by radio, television, wire, satellite, and cable. To do so, the FCC must "classify" the types of communication that happen over these media -- noting, for instance, that your email provider (think Gmail or Yahoo) should have to obey a very different set of laws than those that restrict and regulate, say, your mobile provider (think Sprint or T-Mobile) and your landline telephone.
Okay, so how does the FCC “classify” the Internet?
Before 2002, the FCC treated all Internet providers as "common carriage services." This meant they had to obey the same basic set of laws as, say, the telephone company -- they had to carry any data, no matter what it was or who put it on the Internet, without discrimination. Many people thought this classification made sense. After all, even in the early days of the Internet, many telephone companies (Verizon, AT&T) were already doubling as Internet providers, and many Internet connections came over phone lines.
In 2002, the FCC decided that broadband Internet wasn't actually a common carriage service. Instead it was an "information service," more akin to your email than your telephone. Notably, the FCC has far less regulatory control over "information services" than it does over "common carriage services." For instance, Gmail could decide tomorrow that it won't send any of your emails, and legally, the FCC could do nothing to stop them. Contrast that to telephones: Unless you stop paying your phone bill, the phone company can't simply stop your calls. If they did, the FCC would punish them.