Although many students may not know it, last week was a critical week for the Internet. The Federal Communications Commission approved a policy called net neutrality in a 3-2 vote.
Net neutrality, also referred to as open Internet, is exactly what it sounds like – the idea that there should be equal access to all content on the Internet. This decision prohibits service providers from blocking or slowing down certain types of content, like that from a competing Internet provider. It also means that the Internet is now regarded as a public utility.
The decision does not mean that everyone will be able to access the same site in the same time, since people pay their providers for different types of Internet services. What the decision means is that if someone pays Verizon for their internet, Verizon can not block or slow down their ability to connect to content provided by another big provider, like Comcast.
Previously, Internet providers could make access to certain content, like Netflix, much faster than access to other content. By accepting money from big companies for faster access to their sites, certain types of content, namely those that could afford to pay, were favored over others.
It is difficult to forecast all the possible ramifications of net neutrality, including whether or not it could cause Internet providers to raise prices.
Many companies, like Apple and Google, were already in favor of net neutrality. It was opposed by broadband companies, like AT&T, Comcast, and Verizon. Many consumers also voiced their opinions on the issue, with over 4 million filing comments with the FCC in favor of net neutrality.
In another groundbreaking move, the FCC also declared that these rules are applicable to wireless as well. Mobile Internet carriers had never been subject to net neutrality before, making it clear that the new open Internet policy is intended to be as wide reaching as possible.
The vote was politically fraught, as it had become a partisan issue. President Obama and other proponents of the decision argued that the prioritization of those who can afford to pay was an impediment to small businesses and startups. The FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, who was appointed by President Obama, voted in favor, along with the other two Democratic commissioners. Both Republicans dissented, arguing that the policy was an example of government overreach.
There have been attempts to create open Internet before, but the last one, in 2010, was obstructed by a legal challenge by Verizon.