Explainer: What is Net Neutrality?
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Explainer: What is Net Neutrality?

net-neutralityOn Monday, President Obama came out strongly for the concept of net neutrality, saying that “an open Internet is essential to the American economy, and increasingly to our very way of life.” What exactly is net neutrality? And why should Christians care?

What is net neutrality?

Net neutrality (short for “network neutrality”) refers to both a design principle and laws that attempt to regulate and enforce that principle. The net neutrality principle is the idea that a public information network should aspire to treat all content, sites, and platforms equally. At its simplest, network neutrality is the idea that all Internet traffic should be treated equally and that every website – from Google.com to Acton.org — should all be treated the same when it comes to giving users the bandwidth to reach the internet-connected services they prefer.

Net neutrality laws are legislation or regulation that prevents Internet service providers (ISPs) from discriminating or charging different prices based on such criteria as user, content, site, platform, application, or type of attached equipment.

What is the basic argument in favor of net neutrality regulation?

Proponents of net neutrality regulation fear that without regulation ISPs will abuse their power. For example, an ISP like Comcast could charge users more to access services of their competitors. Since Comcast has it’s own video-on-demand service, they could charge an additional access fee for users who want to use Netflix and stream videos over their Internet connection.

Another argument is that ISPs could stifle innovation by forcing its customers to use preferred services that have a contract with the ISP. Larger companies, for instance, would be able to pay higher fees to the ISPs, while new, smaller start-ups may not have the resources to pay for access to the ISPs customers.

What is the basic argument against net neutrality regulation?

Critics of net neutrality regulation argue that ISPs have a right to distribute their network differently among services, and that this is necessary for innovation. For instance, in the example of Comcast and Netflix, they point out that if Netflix is hogging up bandwidth, that company should be charged more for the necessary updates that Comcast’s systems will require.

Free market advocates also say that government regulation hinders competition and innovation and that the market will provide the best solution. For instance, as applied to the previous example, Comcast customers who are upset about having to pay more for Netflix could switch to another ISP, such as AT&T.

What changes were made by court rulings?

The FCC had previously claimed that ISPs were “common carriers.” This meant they had to abide by the same rules as phone companies and not give special preference to one type of call (or traffic) over another. But earlier this year, a Washington appeals court ruled that the FCC’s net neutrality rules are invalid. The court ruled that while the FCC has authority to regulate how Internet traffic is managed, it couldn’t impose rules on ISPs based on how they classify the content.

What is President Obama’s plan?

The FCC is an independent agency, and ultimately the decision about any changes it up to them rather than the President. Yet President Obama has said he believes the “FCC should create a new set of rules protecting net neutrality and ensuring that neither the cable company nor the phone company will be able to act as a gatekeeper, restricting what you can do or see online.” The rules he is asking for, taken directly from his own statement, include:

No blocking. If a consumer requests access to a website or service, and the content is legal, your ISP should not be permitted to block it. That way, every player — not just those commercially affiliated with an ISP — gets a fair shot at your business.

No throttling. Nor should ISPs be able to intentionally slow down some content or speed up others — through a process often called “throttling” — based on the type of service or your ISP’s preferences.

Increased transparency. The connection between consumers and ISPs — the so-called “last mile” — is not the only place some sites might get special treatment. So, I am also asking the FCC to make full use of the transparency authorities the court recently upheld, and if necessary to apply net neutrality rules to points of interconnection between the ISP and the rest of the Internet.

No paid prioritization. Simply put: No service should be stuck in a “slow lane” because it does not pay a fee. That kind of gatekeeping would undermine the level playing field essential to the Internet’s growth. So, as I have before, I am asking for an explicit ban on paid prioritization and any other restriction that has a similar effect.

Why should Christians care about net neutrality laws?

Christians are divided on the issue of net neutrality regulation. Although some advocacy groups, such as the Christian Coalition, favor net neutrality laws, many others (such as American Values and CatholicVote.org), oppose the regulations.

Christian supporters fear that without the regulation political organizing and religious advocacy could be slowed by the handful of dominant Internet providers who ask advocacy groups or candidates to pay a fee to join the “fast lane.”

Christian opponents claim that the regulations will only stop future innovation, including the types of filters and blocks that parents can use to prevent children from viewing pornography. The groups hope that Internet providers will continue to be allowed to block content from some sites, which could be barred under net neutrality proposals.

Yet other opponents worry that rather than creating a neutral platform for all viewpoints, net neutrality regulation would empower ISPs to censor out viewpoints they don’t like as long it’ fits the FCC’s criteria of ‘reasonable network management.’


Other posts in this series:

Who are the Recent Nobel Peace Prize Winners? • What’s Going on with Hong Kong’s ‘Umbrella Revolution’? •  Ebola Crisis •  Scottish Independence •  Obamacare Subsidies Ruling •  Border Crisis • What’s Going on in Iraq? • EPA’s Proposed New Climate Rule • VA Scandal • What is Going on in Vietnam? • Boko Haram and the Kidnapped Christian Girls • The Supreme Court’s Ruling on Government Prayer • Earth Day? • Holy Week? • What’s Going On in Crimea? • What Just Happened with Russia and Ukraine? • What’s Going on in Ukraine • Jobs Report • The Hobby Lobby Amicus Briefs •  Common Core? • What’s Going on in Syria? • What’s Going on in Egypt?

Joe Carter

Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).