Well, they did it. Despite enormous support for net neutrality among the public, bipartisan lawmakers, and powerful tech companies who would be affected by the rollbacks, Chairman Ajit Pai and his Republican cronies in the FCC voted today to kill the idea that the internet should be affordable, accessible, and open to all.
It’s a very sad day—the Internet has lost its best friend and biggest protector.
Here’s a (brief) history of the life and tragic death of net neutrality, and some slim rays of hope for it’s possible resurrection.
Birth and Early Life
Net neutrality—the concept that internet providers cannot discriminate between content or charge different rates for different users—was just a twinkle in the eye of early adopters when the “world wide web” first started.
In those wild-west days of the early internet, no one really knew how to treat it—should it be regulated like telephone services and other public utilities? What rights and freedoms do users have in regards to accessing it?
Seeing the potential of the internet as a groundbreaking communication tool that will ultimately, irrevocably change society, some theorists and thinkers began to consider the idea of an “open internet”—that access to information on the web should be easily accessible to all.
How can government ensure that the nascent Internet will permit everyone to be able to compete with everyone else for the opportunity to provide any service to all willing customers? Next, how can we ensure that this new marketplace reaches the entire nation? And then how can we ensure that it fulfills the enormous promise of education, economic growth and job creation?
When law professor Tim Wu coined the term “net neutrality” in 2003, it really began to take off. In 2004, FCC chairman Michael Powell laid down four fundamental principles of internet freedom: freedom to access content, to run applications, attach personal devices, and freedom to obtain accurate service plan information. Here’s more:
Preserving “Net Freedom” will preserve consumers’ freedom to access and use whatever content, applications and devices they choose based on the service plan they choose. It will promote comparison shopping among the growing number of providers by making it easier for consumers to obtain access to meaningful information about the services and technical capabilities they rely on to access and use the Internet.
Internet Freedom also promotes innovation by giving developers and service providers confidence that they can develop broadband applications that reach consumers and run as designed.
Preserving “Net Freedom” also will serve as an important “insurance policy” against the potential rise of abusive market power by vertically-integrated broadband providers.
These principles set the stage for later FCC rulings involving broadband versus cable carriers, Comcast’s illegal throttling of BitTorrent traffic, and other issues.
Stanford law professor Lawrence Lessig, an early supporter of open internet principles, testified in Congress in 2006 about net neutrality. He viewed the internet space as a “commons”—a public property like parks, and advocated that the web be a neutral platform where “the network owners can’t discriminate against some [data] packets while favoring others.”
In 2015, under President Obama, net neutrality reached its zenith when it was cemented into law in a 3-2 FCC vote. FCC Chairman at the time, Tom Wheeler, said the policies put into place will “ensure that no one—whether government or corporate—should control free open access to the Internet."
The victory proved to be short-lived.
Just two years later on December 14, 2017, the Republican-controlled FCC, led by Chairman Ajit Pai, repealed what Pai called “the Obama administration’s heavy-handed regulations.”
The 3-2 vote, split along party lines, rolled back net neutrality protections, including rules that prevented internet providers from blocking or “throttling” content and offering internet “fast” and “slow” lanes for consumers.
The vote also removes the Title II designation on broadband carriers, which essentially strips out privacy protections, access for consumers with disabilities, transparent billing, and the guarantee of universal and affordable access to information on the internet.
It’s possible net neutrality—or at least parts of it—can be resurrected. After the FCC vote, the issue will surely be brought to court. Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson has already issued a statement: "Today, I am announcing my intention to file a legal challenge to the FCC’s decision to roll back net neutrality, along with attorneys general across the country.”
In New York State, Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman—who has been actively investigating millions of fake comments pushing for the net neutrality repeal on the FCC’s website—has also promised to sue.
And at least one legislator has drafted a bill here in Washington leaning on our state’s broad consumer protection powers to keep net neutrality protections in place.