Net Fix: 8 burning questions about Net neutrality

With the FCC set to vote this week on new rules governing the Internet, CNET breaks down everything you need to know about complicated, but critical, issue.

Marguerite Reardon Former senior reporter
Marguerite Reardon started as a CNET News reporter in 2004, covering cellphone services, broadband, citywide Wi-Fi, the Net neutrality debate and the consolidation of the phone companies.
Marguerite Reardon
7 min read

Protesters lined up outside the FCC headquarters in May in reaction to Chairman Tom Wheeler's initial Net neutrality proposal. Getty Images

Depending on whom you listen to, the Federal Communications Commission is either about to save the Internet or destroy it.

The agency, led by Democrat Tom Wheeler, who was appointed as FCC chairman by President Barack Obama in 2013, is set to vote this week on important Internet rules after a year of discussion and table-setting. The FCC says its plan will protect the open Internet, the idea that Internet providers must give equal access to content and applications -- and not force content providers like Netflix to pay for faster delivery.

But those who oppose the FCC's plan say it may single-handedly destroy Internet innovation by implementing onerous rules that would choke off investment in wireless networks and the infrastructure that helps enable Internet service in the US.

The vote is the latest chapter in a decades-long debate over how or whether the federal government should regulate the Internet. Wheeler, a former cable and TV industry lobbyist, began work on the current proposal a year ago after a federal appeals court threw out rules passed by his predecessor, another Obama appointee named Julius Genachowski. For more than 12 months, the public has debated -- vociferously -- over how the US should regulate the Internet.

See also: Net neutrality -- how we got from there to here

Thanks to comedian John Oliver, who implored viewers of his HBO show to pay attention to this issue, more than 4 million comments were sent to the FCC. The debate also drew in President Obama, who in November endorsed Net neutrality -- another name for the concept of the open Internet. The president said there shouldn't be any toll takers between you and your favorite online sites and services.

The White House's endorsement empowered the FCC to propose even stricter rules on how Internet traffic should flow.

So it turns out that the future of the Internet really is at stake. To help you understand what you need to know about the new rules, here are the answers to eight key questions about Net neutrality.

1. What is Net neutrality?

Net neutrality is the principle that all traffic on the Internet should be treated equally. And the new rules will ensure that whether you're checking Facebook, posting pictures to Instagram, shopping on Amazon, or streaming Netflix movies, all the information traveling across the Internet to you and from you should be treated the same. That means your Internet service provider -- whether that's a broadband company like Comcast or a wireless carrier like AT&T or Verizon -- can't block or slow down your access to that content. The new rules also ensure that a broadband provider can't pick winners and losers on the Internet by creating "fast lanes" that allow them to charge certain companies for priority, or faster, access to customers.

2. Why does this matter to me?

For consumers of Internet services (which covers the majority of people here in the US), Net neutrality means there's nothing in the way of you accessing your favorite sites and getting your favorite content. If you're an entrepreneur looking to start your own streaming service, you'll be be treated the same as a deep-pocketed Netflix or Google when delivering videos to your customers.

3. What's going to change when these rules are adopted?

Nothing. That's the whole point. The Internet has always operated on this basic principle of openness or Net neutrality. But over the last year, broadband providers such as Verizon opened the door to the idea of fast lanes and toll takers by taking a more liberal interpretation of the principles, sparking the need for firmer rules.

The open nature of the Internet is critical for the fostering of new technologies and services. It's why a young Harvard student named Mark Zuckerberg was able to build the Facebook social network. It's also how two Stanford graduate students, Sergey Brin and Larry Page, were able, with their little project called Google, to change how we search for things on the Web -- and upend the advertising industry at the same time.

The decade-long debate over how to implement Net neutrality has really been a battle to make certain a level of openness is preserved. And the way to preserve it is by establishing "rules of the road" that let Internet service providers, consumers and innovators know what's allowed and what's not allowed on the Net.

Watch this: What the FCC Net neutrality rules will mean for Internet users

4. If nothing would happen to the Internet if these new rules weren't adopted, why should I care?

It's true that for much of the Internet's history there have been no formal rules governing Net neutrality. In fact, the only time official rules existed was between 2010 and 2014. Those rules were tossed out in January 2014 by a federal appeals court, so for the past year the Internet hasn't been "officially" protected by regulation. And most people can say that they have always and continue to enjoy a free and open Internet.

So why do we need the rules? It's because it will help protect the Internet from turning into a closed system that looks like the existing cable TV model.

Remember the "I want my MTV" campaign in the 1980s? Cable networks were unwilling to put MTV in their channel lineup. So MTV started the marketing campaign to get cable subscribers to demand that their local cable operators carry the channel. Imagine if YouTube or Netflix had to get permission from your broadband provider so you could watch your favorite cat videos or the next season of Netflix's "House of Cards" on their network?

In the traditional cable TV model, cable operators decide which channels you get and how easy it is to find content. By contrast, broadband providers today have no control over which Web sites or online services you access. Most Internet users want to keep it that way. Net neutrality regulation ensures that happens.

5. If everyone agrees on the rules, why are we still talking about this?

It's not the rules per se that are controversial. In fact, just about everyone agrees on the actual rules. What today's battle over Net neutrality is really about is whether the government should reclassify broadband as a so-called Title II telecommunications service under the 1934 Communications Act. If Internet service providers are treated as a Title II service, the FCC can then regulate them using rules originally established for the old telephone network. This legal definition establishes broadband as a "common carrier," a centuries-old concept that means their network must be open to everyone.

Wheeler's proposal, which will likely be approved on Thursday, makes this change to classify broadband under Title II. It's a clear departure from the "light" regulation the broadband industry has enjoyed for nearly 20 years. This light-touch approach to regulation has encouraged billions of dollars in investment in infrastructure, like wireless networks, and has helped make the Internet the biggest growth engine in the US economy.

Critics opposed to the FCC's Title II stance say reclassification will stifle innovation and curb growth. Why? They say that in addition to keeping the Internet open, the new classification will also carry with it a set of old-style utility regulation that might let the FCC to set prices or even force companies to share their networks and infrastructure with competitors.

6. Why is the FCC taking this drastic measure to reclassify broadband?

Democrats, consumer advocates and some Internet companies like Netflix say the only way the Net neutrality rules will hold up to court challenges is to use this old legal framework. Wheeler has said repeatedly that the FCC will ignore provisions in the old regulations that don't apply to broadband -- and that includes not setting rates or forcing companies to open their networks to competitors.

The carriers, however, are worried that future FCC commissioners might take a more proactive approach on rates, and Title II would give them the legal backing to proceed.

7. Will a new classification for broadband change anything?

That's the big question. You won't see any changes immediately. But critics of the Title II approach, such as Republican FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai, argue that applying utility-like regulation to broadband is a slippery slope because it could lead to the FCC imposing new taxes on the service, which will lead to higher prices for consumers. Critics also say this new classification will discourage broadband providers from investing in their networks.

Wheeler has addressed these concerns. He has said the agency will ignore any provisions that would impose new taxes on broadband service. But it remains to be seen whether broadband providers will truly be too scared to invest in their networks. Wheeler argues that's unlikely, given the huge success of the most recent wireless spectrum auction, which generated $45 billion for the government. AT&T and Verizon, who oppose Title II reclassification, were among the top three companies bidding in the auction, spending a total of $28.2 billion.

Spectrum is critical to ensuring there is enough capacity to deliver more and more quantities of information over the air, so it's unlikely that the carriers will let hold off on utilizing their newly gained licenses because of a different regulatory environment. It also isn't stopping new broadband competitors, such as Google, from announcing plans to deploy its fiber network for providing Internet access to additional cities.

8. Will Feb. 26 mark the end of this battle?

Sadly, no. Lawsuits are sure to follow. The major broadband operators in the US, including AT&T, Verizon and some cable operators, have already said they'll likely file a legal challenge to the Title II approach.

Republicans in Congress have also already crafted legislation that codifies the basic Net neutrality rules everyone agrees on but would strip the FCC of its authority to regulate the Internet. Some experts expect the Republican legislation to pass. But if it does, that legislation will surely get vetoed by President Obama, who is a big supporter of the FCC's Net neutrality rules and reclassification of broadband as a Title II service.

But while the battle may rage on in the courts, this latest chapter in the Net neutrality debate will conclude once the FCC votes to adopt this latest set of rules.

This story is part of a CNET special report looking at the challenges of Net neutrality, and what rules -- if any -- are needed to fuel innovation and protect US consumers.