Although older adults can still remember a time before the Internet, today's youth probably can't imagine living in an offline world. The Internet has become so ingrained into our daily lives that many people now regard Internet access as essential, like access to fresh water and electricity.
But what if the companies that connect you to the Internet — known as Internet Service Providers or ISPs — could manipulate your use of the Internet? What if they could block you from using certain websites? Or what if they could make certain sites load more quickly and other sites load more slowly?
These are some of the concerns an idea known as net neutrality. At its most basic level, net neutrality means that all Internet traffic should be treated equally.
In 2015, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) enacted a set of rules to ensure net neutrality. In doing so, they classified consumer broadband service as a public utility, similar to telephone service or electricity, under Title II of the 1934 Communications Act.
The FCC's net neutrality rules seek to make sure that ISPs, such as AT&T, Comcast, and Verizon, adhere to three basic policies: (1) no blocking (ISPs can't block lawful content or services); (2) no throttling (ISPs can't discriminate against Internet traffic based upon what it is, who it's from, or where it's going, such as selectively slowing down traffic from a competitor); and (3) no paid prioritization (ISPs can't charge more for special treatment, such as Internet "fast lanes").
Those rules sound reasonable, right? Who could argue against a free and open Internet? Well, like many modern issues, there are many sides to the story. While most people tend to agree with the basic idea of net neutrality, there are many different opinions on how best to achieve the goal of an open Internet.
In 2017, after a change of leadership, the FCC began considering revisions to the net neutrality rules. Net neutrality proponents fear that the current rules will be eliminated, allowing ISPs too much control over the Internet.
However, there are others who believe that the government is not the best entity to manage the Internet. Instead, many people believe that competition among ISPs in the free market should be allowed to determine how the Internet continues to evolve and how much it costs to access it. Rather than being against an open Internet, these groups oppose the current FCC rules as unnecessary and too burdensome.
As the arguments for and against the FCC's net neutrality rules get tossed about, it's important to seek to fully understand the issues and how they might affect you. Proponents of the FCC's rules believe they're necessary to even the playing field between big ISPs and smaller start-up companies.
Others believe that content providers that account for massive amounts of Internet traffic, such as Netflix and YouTube, should be allowed to — and perhaps forced to — pay more to ensure that all Internet traffic moves freely and doesn't get bogged down by the largest content providers.
Some experts believe that the current arguments for net neutrality are too simplistic and rely upon an outdated understanding of how the Internet works. These experts point out that today's Internet isn't neutral now.
For example, some of the largest content providers, including Google, Netflix, and Facebook, have been making special arrangements with ISPs for years now. These arrangements include setting up routers inside large data centers used by popular ISPs (known as "peering") or setting up servers inside ISPs directly (known as a "content delivery network").
These arrangements help to speed up and facilitate delivery of content from these large content providers, which many feel is necessary when half of today's Internet traffic comes from about 30 sources, including Google, Netflix, and Facebook.
In light of these arrangements that already exist today, those in favor of removing or altering the FCC's net neutrality rules claim that rules that enforce the status quo aren't enforcing neutrality, but instead maintain a system that's not neutral to begin with. Instead, many people believe that proponents of an open Internet should be looking for ways to increase competition among ISPs.