Net Neutrality Summarized
February 10, 2015
During my internship at Penn Wharton Public Policy Initiative, I was responsible for tracking technology policy and, therefore, the ongoing net neutrality debate. I had heard the discussion about net neutrality before, but did not fully understand the concept. After ten weeks of tracking the issue, attending Congressional hearings, and reading reports from various institutions, I learned how intricate and difficult this policy issue is. While John Oliver from Last Week Tonight may have you believe that FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler is “a dingo” and that cable companies are evil, net neutrality is a much more complicated issue that requires serious consideration of the opinions of several stakeholders, including Internet Service Providers (ISPs), content providers, consumers, and Internet users.
By Jordyn Jones, W’16
What is net neutrality?
Net neutrality refers to the principle of treating all internet traffic the same. This means that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) cannot discriminate based on content or application. For the past several years, the Federal Communications Commissions has tried to codify this standard. The FCC issued a 2010 Open Internet Order that prohibited broadband providers from blocking content or discriminating unreasonably. Despite these efforts, in Verizon v. FCC, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ruled that the FCC does not have the authority to enforce these net neutrality rules. The court found that the FCC cannot regulate broadband providers as common carriers as they are not classified as such under title II of the Telecommunications Act of 1996.
The FCC issued its proposal in May 2014 that would allow paid prioritization (or so-called “fast lanes”). Paid prioritization allows Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to charge content providers more to gain quicker delivery to their customers. The proposal received over one million comments from American companies and civilians during the five-month commenting period.
What are the arguments for and against net neutrality?
Many Internet users and content providers, such as Google, Netflix, and Skype were angry about the proposed rulemaking. They feared that forcing companies to pay more to access their customers would stifle innovation across the Internet. Could a new website become the next YouTube if it were unable to afford paid prioritization? If consumers perceive a website as being slow, they are likely to blame the website rather than the ISP. Another concern is that the ISP will be able to prioritize its own content at the expense of its competitors. For example, Comcast, an Internet Service Provider, could make Netflix load more slowly while allowing users to quickly access its own video streaming site.
Although the argument against net neutrality may not be as popular, it does not lack strength. Opponents say that enforcing net neutrality will stifle innovation. The added revenue from the service fees could mean greater investment in broadband networks. Broadband companies, such as Verizon, have argued that there is no incentive to build better broadband networks if they will not make revenue from the content providers who will benefit from the increased download speeds. They argue that content providers who use large amounts of bandwidth should be charged more.
After receiving over one million comments regarding the May proposed rulemaking, the FCC has decided to host four “Open Internet Round Tables”. Many of those against net neutrality are pushing for the FCC to reclassify broadband as a common carrier so that stricter anti-discrimination laws can be enforced. Broadband providers and many Republican legislators insist that the Internet be unregulated and that ISPs should be able to charge for prioritization. Whatever the answer, after several months of discussion, the debate of net neutrality is far from over.
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The views expressed on the Student Blog are the author’s opinions and don’t necessarily represent the Penn Wharton Public Policy Initiative’s strategies, recommendations, or opinions.