Editor’s note: On January 14, DC’s Circuit Court of Appeals found that the FCC does not have the authority to impose its net neutrality rules on Internet service providers. Read on to learn what that means for the future of the Internet.
Over the last decade, net neutrality has increasingly made its way into public discourse: politicians on Capitol Hill have battled over it, corporations have worked to curb it and public interest advocates have fought to preserve it. In September, the fight to keep the Internet free and open found its way to the DC’s Circuit Court of Appeals, where Verizon is attempting to overturn the Federal Communications Commission’s current net neutrality regulations. Verizon vs. FCC, which could be decided as soon as this month, is the latest and arguably most important battle to protect the Internet from censorship and discrimination. But what is net neutrality? And what could this case mean for the future of the Internet? We’ve put together this explainer to catch you up.
What is net neutrality?
Network neutrality, or net neutrality, is a term first coined by technology policy scholar Tim Wu to describe the preservation of online innovation by prohibiting companies from discriminating against some users and content, or prioritizing some content over others. It 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.
By the way, what is an Internet service provider?
An Internet service provider, or ISP, is a company or organization that sells you access to the Internet. These companies, like Comcast, Verizon, Time Warner Cable or CenturyLink, do not own the Internet, they just provide the infrastructure needed to access it, like underground fiber optic cables. It’s a lot like how your local water company doesn’t actually own the water you use, they just own the water pipes.
Is net neutrality a new concept?
No. The first innovators of the Word Wide Web intended for Internet to be non-discriminatory and fair to all users. Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the Web, is a staunch supporter of net neutrality regulation and frequently makes public critiques of companies who aim to violate it.
Now, what happens without net neutrality?
Without net neutrality, your Internet service provider could block or slow online content, depending on which websites or apps they wish to preference. For example, an ISP might speed up your access to NBC.com, but slow or degrade your access to AlJazeera.com. They could also charge different prices for different content. An ISP might charge NBC.com more to host last week’s episode of Parks and Recreation than to feature an article about it. Internet service providers could also charge fees to Internet companies for providing that content to you. They might, for example, begin charging Netflix a fee for carrying online video over its network, which it likely will pass on along to its customers.