Explainer: What you should know about ‘net neutrality’
Religion & Liberty Online

Explainer: What you should know about ‘net neutrality’

What just happened?

Yesterday the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) released a draft of the ‘Restoring Internet Freedom Order,’ a plan to roll back some of the ‘net neutrality’ regulations implemented by the Obama administration.

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 regulations that prevent 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. In 2014 a federal appeals court ruled that the FCC’s net neutrality rules were 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 are the FCC’s net neutrality rules?

Under President Obama, the FCC included three “bright line” rules:

  • No Blocking: broadband providers may not block access to legal content, applications, services, or non-harmful devices.
  • No Throttling: broadband providers may not impair or degrade lawful Internet traffic on the basis of content, applications, services, or non-harmful devices.
  • No Paid Prioritization: broadband providers may not favor some lawful Internet traffic over other lawful traffic in exchange for consideration of any kind—in other words, no “fast lanes.” This rule also bans ISPs from prioritizing content and services of their affiliates.

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.’

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).