On May 15, the Federal Communications Commission voted to move forward with their proposed rules for net neutrality, the principle that all Internet traffic should be treated equally. The proposal, which will now be open for public comment for four months, would dramatically change the Internet. The new rules would allow Internet service providers (ISPs) like Verizon or AT&T to charge websites like Facebook and Twitter for faster service. This has a whole range of consequences for you, the avid Internet user. We’ve put together this explainer to help you understand what the proposal means and how you can tell the FCC what you think about the proposed rules.
What is net neutrality?
For a detailed look at what net neutrality is and the history behind legislating for an open Internet, see our earlier explainer here. As I wrote in December, the principle of net neutrality “guarantees a level playing field in which Internet users do not have to pay Internet service providers more for better access to online content, and content generators do not have to pay additional fees to ensure users can access their websites or apps.” In other words, all Internet traffic should be treated equally.
What has happened up until this point?
The history of the current proposal goes back to 2010, when the FCC issued an Open Internet Order. This created some net neutrality rules, which prohibited Internet service providers from blocking content and prioritizing certain kinds of traffic. Consumer rights advocates criticized the rules as too weak because they did not cover mobile web providers. Telecommunications companies, though, countered that the rules were too strong.
Currently, Internet service providers are legally classified as “information services,” and the law says that no discrimination or price regulations are “necessary for consumer protection.” This means that the FCC has no authority to regulate those services, though the commission does have indirect authority to regulate interstate and international communications. After the FCC released its Open Internet Order, Verizon filed a lawsuit against the FCC claiming that the commission didn’t have the authority to make those rules or enforce them over Internet service providers like itself. In January of this year, the DC Court of Appeals agreed with Verizon and said that the FCC can’t stop Internet service providers from blocking or discriminating against websites or any other Internet traffic unless the Internet is reclassified as a public utility. But the court also said the FCC does have some authority to implement net neutrality rules so far as it promotes broadband deployment across the country.
The FCC took that small window of opportunity and worked on a new proposal over the last few months. On Thursday, they voted to present the proposal to the public for comment, which is what’s on the table now. It’s called a notice of proposed rule-making.
What is a notice of proposed rule-making?
A notice of proposed rule-making, or NPRM, is a bureaucratic term to describe an announcement that a government agency is thinking of making rules about an issue and is giving the public the opportunity to weigh in. This NPRM process happens for every government agency with some authority to make new rules. By opening up an NPRM, the FCC is saying to the country, “Hey, we’re considering this proposed rule. What do you think of it?”