Thumbnail graphic by Kim Jao / North by Northwestern

Imagine you go on Netflix to watch your comfort show after midterms, yet, as it plays you are continually interrupted by moments of buffering and lags in the video. The problem might not be with your wifi router, but rather your Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and the way they take advantage of net neutrality’s absence.

Many remember first learning about net neutrality when it flooded the news in 2017 as internet regulations were repealed by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Now, the Biden administration’s appointed FCC chairwoman, Jessica Rosenworcel, has new plans to bring net neutrality back this upcoming year.

What is net neutrality?

Net neutrality, or an open internet, is the principle that ISPs like Comcast or AT&T must provide equal access to all internet services. This includes not charging companies different fees for varying tiers of speed. Without net neutrality, ISPs can charge companies more for faster internet speeds when consumers access their content, or block some content completely.

What is the history of net neutrality?

The Federal Communications Commission, or FCC, is generally responsible for regulating the internet, but the partisan nature of net neutrality has made it an unexpected site of heated debate.

The FCC created clear regulations in 2015 stating ISPs could not block or provide priority to any specific companies on the internet.

In 2017, these regulations were repealed by former President Donald Trump’s FCC board. The decision was supported by many Republicans. They argued that net neutrality limited growth in the industry since the revenue obtained through charging for prioritized internet access could be used to develop advancements in the speed and quality of the internet provided. In their eyes, more regulations meant a more restricted market and less competition.

Proponents argue that net neutrality is a necessity because society is dependent on the internet. Supporters believe a lack of regulations lead to censorship by ISPs and extra costs for consumers. This is because ISPs charge companies premiums for priority speed. These impacts are more acutely felt in rural areas with fewer ISP options.

A Northeastern University project has tracked examples of throttling, the practice of intentionally slowing down data, by ISPs since October 2017. According to the project, popular apps such as Netflix, Hulu, YouTube and Twitch have been slowed by major providers like AT&T and T-Mobile. Sprint has also throttled access to Skype by slowing down video quality because it's a competitor to the company’s own video communication service.

Despite these actions, some consumers don’t realize any difference in their everyday lives.

“We have not seen significant instances that we know about blocking or anti-neutrality activities,” Northwestern Pritzker School of Law Professor James Speta said. “On the other hand there remains continued economic and non-economic pressures for discrimination [by ISPs], and the FCC’s theory is that there's a need for preventative regulation.”

Following the FCC’s decision in 2017, states across the country enforced their own regulations surrounding net neutrality, though not all have been successful.

California enacted one of the most thorough laws regarding an open internet in 2018, but faced a lawsuit from some of the largest communications companies and the Trump administration to repeal the regulations. The California government agreed to hold off on enforcing anything until the lawsuit was settled, which did not happen until 2021 when the companies dropped the case.

The issue of net neutrality is a priority once again as FCC chairwoman Rosenworcel proposed a restoration of regulations for it. She explained to the National Press Club that “The repeal of net neutrality rules was problematic not only because it wiped away enforceable, bright-line rules to prevent blocking, throttling, and paid prioritization.”

Rosenworcel hopes to have a national standard of regulatory policies that every state must follow. The FCC board has voted to continue with a proposal to reinstate regulations on net neutrality. They will move to categorize the internet as a regulated utility under Title II of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, a part of the law that allows the FCC to regulate the internet similarly to how water and electricity are regulated.

If they are successful in their vote, set to take place as early as the beginning of 2024, the FCC will have jurisdiction to enforce the principles of net neutrality once again.

Speta does not view net neutrality regulations as the FCC’s most important issue, but understands that given the political makeup of the agency, it’s likely that these regulations will pass. Though it may face pushback from outside governing bodies, Speta said he believes it will likely be upheld by the courts.

What does this mean for you?

Speta explained in a video for the Pritzker School of Law that net neutrality comes down to who you trust to govern your internet.

If an open internet is enforced, accessing data for everyday services like streaming and communication may become significantly faster.

It’s possible that overall pricing for some internet services will decrease and, in some cases, become less confusing. ISPs have various ‘unlimited plans’ but each one has different definitions of what “unlimited” means. Lower tier unlimited plans can face slowdowns after a certain amount of gigabytes are used, while higher tiered plans receive priority. Net neutrality will force ISPs to more openly clarify these differences.

Certain incentives by ISPs to use other services they own such as their streaming and communication companies will possibly change. AT&T owns DirecTV and allows their consumers to stream on this platform without worrying about their data cap – something that is not an option for other streaming services.

Outside of everyday entertainment, the enforcement of an open internet will also shield consumers from restrictions on what they can view and share on the internet.

Though it seems likely that net neutrality will be reinstated, the exact terms of its reinstatement won’t become clear until the FCC’s final decision is released.

As Rosenworcel explained in her public statement, “You need a referee on the field looking out for the public interest – and ensuring your access is fast, open, and fair.”