UPDATED BY
Matthew Urwin | Dec 06, 2023

Net neutrality is the concept that internet service providers (ISPs) should treat all data moving across their networks the same, neither discriminating against nor preferring certain content. This way, ISPs can’t perform actions like speeding up traffic for platforms they favor or blocking access to competitor platforms. While this seems beneficial for consumers, not all parties have supported the idea of more internet regulation

What Is Net Neutrality?

Net neutrality refers to policies that ensure all internet users get fair and equal access to the internet. Net neutrality legislation aims to regulate the control telecommunications providers have over how the internet operates, and prevents them from restricting or favoring access to certain content in their networks.

Coined by Columbia law professor and former White House staff member Tim Wu, the term “net neutrality” has become standard shorthand for the debate about internet legislation and corporate regulations. Today, it’s a rallying call for activists in favor of a regulated internet, and a pain point for internet service providers. 

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What Is Net Neutrality?

Put simply, net neutrality is a system for ensuring fair and equal internet access. With net neutrality regulations, internet service providers have to display all content equally, without discrimination. Without net neutrality, though, large internet providers can favor certain traffic sources, and block their customers from accessing certain sites that don’t align with their business interests. For instance, without net neutrality standards, an internet provider could slow down the loading time for sites affiliated with its competitors.

According to Ernesto Falcon, senior legislative counsel at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, net neutrality “prevents internet gatekeeping.”

“Twenty-plus years ago, there were thousands of options for high-speed internet access,” Falcon, who took part in halting AT&T’s 2014 merger with T-Mobile as vice president of government affairs at public interest firm Public Knowledge, told Built In. “But now, with so much monopolization, you have to have rules to prevent abuse.”

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Benefits of Net Neutrality

Despite pushback against net neutrality, the practice comes with promising perks for consumers who rely on the web for everyday needs.
 

Equal Access to All Content 

If ISPs favor content from certain devices or geographic areas, this can put populations in a position where they have poor or zero service. That’s why supporters and activists argue net neutrality standards are crucial to not only level the economic playing field, but to ensure internet access is a guaranteed right for all.

 

Level Playing Field for Competition 

Powerful corporations that control large shares of internet networks can slow traffic or block access to competitor platforms, making it difficult for smaller businesses to break into the field. Telecom providers tend to oppose net neutrality because it doesn’t support their business and infrastructure goals, said Aaron Nielson, professor at BYU Law.

“If providers can’t favor certain types of content, it’s harder for them to secure revenue and ensure they’re going to be paid for building internet infrastructure,” Nielson told Built In. “[But] that makes it really hard for new content creators, because the bigger players will just push them aside.”

 

Guaranteed Freedom of Speech 

An unregulated web might see ISPs block or limit access to platforms, news sources and independent content that may go against its business interests. Enforcing net neutrality means that all content must be treated equally, regardless of the views they represent. As long as content creators stay within legal boundaries, net neutrality grants them the right to express opinions and share information across the internet.

 

Reduced Misinformation

Another downside to letting ISPs establish the rules for the internet is that they may offer faster traffic and no costs only for platforms they favor. If these platforms share inaccurate information, this could result in consumers developing biased or unfounded opinions. Creating an open playing field for all content providers enables consumers to access various sources. 

 

Why Net Neutrality Laws Keep Changing

“At the start, there was bipartisan agreement that the internet should be open, and that everybody can use the internet,” said Steven Augustino, communications regulation attorney at Nelson Mullins. “Where there has been disagreement, it’s been about what level of regulation is necessary to keep the internet open.”

Indeed, when it comes to net neutrality, the government approach has been less of a bipartisan project and more of a tug of war. Just as soon as regulatory decisions are made about net neutrality, those same decisions are overturned or rendered obsolete by follow-up legislation.

“When the Republicans control the White House and the [Federal Communications Commission], the agency takes a light touch to internet regulation. Then, when the Democrats control the White House and the FCC, they take a heavier approach,” Nielson said. “The reason it’s hard to regulate is because of this flip-flopping.”

In 2010, the FCC imposed more structured rules on ISPs, but those rules were challenged by Verizon and were rescinded in 2014. In 2017, the Trump administration repealed privacy regulations set by the FCC in 2015; but the Biden administration responded in 2021 with the appointment of Jessica Rosenworcel — a proponent of net neutrality — as FCC chair. And Democratic senators Ed Markey and Ron Wyden built on this momentum by introducing the Net Neutrality and Broadband Justice Act in 2022. 

Right now, each state has different regulations regarding internet neutrality, with some taking a more hardline stance than others. In 2018, California passed S.B. 822, an EFF-backed law that prohibited internet providers from blocking or slowing essential internet services or applications. Since then, the law has stood up to challenges from telecommunications and internet service providers. But while California’s laws around net neutrality have been settled, that isn’t the case at a federal level, Falcon said.

 

Big Tech and Net Neutrality

At first glance, it may seem like net neutrality is primarily a fight between telecom providers and small content creators. But they aren’t the only ones with a stake in the game. Big tech names like X (formerly Twitter), Meta and Google have all thrown their hats into the ring — though their positions on the matter have been anything but static.

“In the beginning, many were avid supporters of net neutrality, simply because their entire business model was capable of being squashed by an ISP,” Falcon said. “But now they’re at a size and level of dominance where, if they wanted to, they could simply strike certain exclusive ISPs and prevent other companies from getting equal footing in the market.”

But that doesn’t mean all large tech companies oppose net neutrality. Many household tech names push for net neutrality, especially those who rely on contributions from users and content creators to run their business, Falcon said.

“The real activists on the tech side are [companies like] Reddit, eBay, and even Wikipedia,” Falcon said. “Other companies that come into the fold are ones that sell products that are dependent on internet access, like home alarm system companies — because no one would want to buy an alarm system that doesn’t work 100 percent of the time.”

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Future of Net Neutrality

The net neutrality issue is not one that will be solved overnight, but Falcon said one thing is certain: The public demand for net neutrality won’t be going away any time soon.

In response to the need for affordable internet access, the FCC now offers a benefit program called the Affordable Connectivity Program, which provides discounts on internet service for qualifying households. And the commission voted in October of 2023 to approve a plan to restore net neutrality, signaling increased regulation to ensure fair and affordable internet access is on the horizon.  

However, the actual reinstatement of net neutrality is a ways off, and political conflicts always threaten new legislation in favor of the policy.

“The Senate works in mysterious ways,” Nielson said. “Sometimes things just happen. It’s just crystal ball gazing, and there’s uncertainty everywhere.”

 

Frequently Asked Questions

What is net neutrality?

Net neutrality is the idea that all content on the internet should be treated equally by internet service providers. This way, ISPs can’t discriminate against or favor any platforms by controlling what content consumers can access on the web.

Why is net neutrality important?

By ensuring all online content is treated fairly by ISPs, net neutrality guarantees a level playing field for all platforms, protects freedom of speech and eliminates costs that could make internet service too expensive for low-income internet users.

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