Have you ever been frustrated at the slow internet speed, or experienced buffering while streaming a live ball game, or your favorite TV, Netflix, or Hulu show? We’ve all been there. In many cases, the slow speed is not intentional, but due to poor server configuration or high traffic providers are experiencing at a particular time. Now, imagine this has become the norm, because of government deregulation that now allows Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to dictate which customers get faster or slower traffic depending on how much customers pay for their services. Welcome to the network (net) neutrality debate!
To some, net neutrality may seem like just another new buzzword, but it is not a new concept. Back in the 1960s, AT&T had a monopoly of the phone industry, and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) had to step in so that market competition was fostered to give consumer more options, as well as lower prices.
Those in favor of net neutrality believe that ISPs and network providers should treat their customers (a.k.a. “traffic”) equally as they navigate to and from any web site, application, or device. Being “net-neutral” refers to ISPs not artificially slowing down, speeding up, throttling, or setting data limits for any resources the customer is trying to access through the ISP’s connection. Keep in mind, a “customer” in this context can refer to a consumer in their home, a business, or a government agency. In other words, proponents of net neutrality argue that ISPs should not be allowed to play favorites and allow online content providers (or content owned by the ISP’s parent company) preferential treatment over another, especially if one provider pays more than another for traffic. What does this all mean? Large private businesses with deep pockets could get faster internet while the rest of us watch the buffering icon spin.
Also central to the debate is whether the broadband internet should be classified as a Title I Information Service, or a Title II Common Carrier under the Communications Act of 1934. Title II allows FCC to regulate wire and communication services similar to regulating telephone, or gas and electric providers; it is the legal foundation for the Open Internet Order of 2015 and net neutrality rules.
History has a way of repeating itself; the FCC has recently repealed the Net Neutrality rules put in place by the previous administration. Proponents of this recent move by the FCC argue that consumers’ internet experience will not be affected. They claim that the new rules could actually benefit consumers and allow FCC to go after ISPs with anti-competitive behavior. Many supporting the FCC repeal favor market-based regulations and letting the consumers decide who wins and who loses, vs. government intervention and regulations. Another argument for repealing neutrality rules is that it would lead to more opportunities for small business providers to spend capital to invest in building the infrastructure to roll out services to reach more consumers and provide better internet speed. This could ultimately lead to more competition and cheaper services.
However, many states hold a different view and are already reacting to these recent changes, reinstating net neutrality rules. Montana was the first state to restore net neutrality rules for ISPs on state government contracts through an executive order signed by Governor Steve Bullock, Executive Order on January 22, 2018. New requirements imposing net neutrality apply to new and renewed contracts signed after July 1, 2018. Similar executive orders have been signed by New York’s Governor, Andrew Cuomo, on January 24th, by New Jersey’s Governor Phil Murphy on February 5th, Hawaii’s Governor David Ige, on February 5th, and Vermont’s Governor Phil Scott on February 15th, prohibiting ISPs that do business with the state from blocking or favoring web content. Similarly, under Alaska’s House Bill 277 introduced in January, violation of net neutrality by a utility providing broadband internet access service under a state contract would become an unlawful act and practice.
On January 16, Attorneys General in 22 states sued the FCC to reinstate net neutrality rules: California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Mississippi, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia, Washington and Washington DC. Additionally, at least six states (California, Massachusetts, Nebraska, New York, Rhode Island, and Washington) have introduced legislation banning ISPs from blocking or slowing down sites or online services.
In today’s world, global networking is just as essential to how we interact with the world as phones were in the 60’s, and the healthy debate over net neutrality rules is just as important as addressing the monopoly by phone service providers a few decades ago. There are arguments and advocates on both sides of the net neutrality debate, and it remains to be seen what the majority will decide. No matter what the ultimate decision is, it is important to stay abreast of the latest on net neutrality, where your state stands, and how it could impact your state.