Net neutrality turns 1: Here's everything you need to know (FAQ)

The new rules governing an open Internet reach a milestone, but not everyone is celebrating.

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
5 min read

The US government's landmark Net neutrality rules are about to mark their one-year anniversary. You'd think proponents of a free and open Internet would mark the occasion with a victory lap.

Nettled. Emotions have run high over Net neutrality. Here, protesters gather in California in 2014, near where President Barack Obama was hosting a fund-raiser.

Emotions have run high over Net neutrality. Here, protesters gathered in California in 2014, near where President Barack Obama was hosting a fundraiser.

Steve Rhodes/Demotix/Corbis

It's not that simple.

When the Federal Communications Commission put the Internet under stricter regulations last February 26, it wanted to make sure broadband service providers would treat all Web traffic the same. But the situation is far from settled. Broadband providers quickly sued the FCC, and the courts are now reviewing the rules. Those legal decisions will decide how the Internet works.

The future looks different depending on which side you believe. The FCC says its regulations prevent big businesses from shutting out competitors and controlling the content we see on our computers, phones and tablets. The broadband players, including AT&T and Verizon, say the rules don't encourage them to invest in network upgrades, which will limit innovation and drive up prices.

Net neutrality wasn't something many people cared about before June 2014, when comedian John Oliver compared cable companies to the mafia shaking down regulators to rewrite the rules. Oliver finished his 13-minute rant by calling on his viewers to flood the FCC with comments supporting an open Internet. Four million Americans contacted the agency, crashing its servers.

President Barack Obama joined the debate that November, supporting a plan to reclassify the rules governing broadband. The three Democratic FCC commissioners pushed for the new rules, while the two Republican commissioners opposed them.

You're forgiven for not remembering all the details. It's pretty wonky, after all. To refresh your memory and to mark the one-year anniversary, we offer this FAQ and a reminder that all our stories on Net neutrality, including our exclusive interview with FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, can be found here.

What is Net neutrality again?

Net neutrality is the idea that all traffic on the Internet should be treated equally. This means your broadband provider, which controls your access to the Internet, can't block or slow down the services or applications you use over the Web. It also means your Internet provider can't create so-called fast lanes that force companies like Netflix to pay an additional fee to speed up delivery of content to you.

Sounds reasonable. Why is this controversial?

Although almost everyone involved agrees with the basic idea of Net neutrality, the FCC's rules have become a lightning rod for controversy. That's because the commission, under Wheeler, has reclassified broadband as a public utility. That change puts broadband providers under some of the same strict regulations that have governed telephone networks for more than 80 years.

Before the ink even dried on the new regulations, telephone companies and cable operators banded together to sue the government, arguing that the FCC doesn't have the authority to make such a drastic change. They say the new classification lets the FCC impose higher rates, which will discourage them from building or upgrading networks. The FCC says it doesn't have any plans to regulate rates or quash innovative business models. Wheeler said the only reason the agency reclassified broadband was to make sure it can fight legal challenges it expects from Internet providers.

Why is this a big deal?

If the US Court of Appeals upholds the FCC's order, broadband providers can't block or slow down your access to the Internet. They also won't be able to create fast lanes, where companies pay for priority access to deliver content and services to your home.

If the FCC loses, the agency could be stripped of its authority and be left unable to determine whether new business practices will harm consumers. One example is zero-rating. That's when broadband providers and wireless companies don't count data usage of specific apps and services against a customer's cap. Net neutrality supporters argue against the practice, saying it turns broadband providers into Internet gatekeepers by encouraging consumers to use certain services instead of others. This, they say, ultimately hurts competition, innovation and consumer choice. The FCC is currently reviewing offers announced by AT&T, Comcast, Verizon and T-Mobile.

Where do the rules stand now?

The FCC's rules went into effect in June. The lawsuit was argued in federal court in December, and we're waiting for a decision later this spring. The case will be decided before the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit, the same court that struck down the FCC's two previous attempts at Net neutrality, with one of the same judges.

Will Congress take action?

Right before the FCC's new regulations passed last year, Republicans led by Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) pushed for legislation to derail them, but the effort stalled. House Republicans also attempted to cut off funding needed to implement the rules, but that effort failed too.

Opponents are re-energized, however. Earlier this month, Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) introduced a bill called the No Rate Regulation of Broadband Internet Access Act, forbidding the FCC from dictating how much companies can charge for broadband Net access.

What are the chances of the bill becoming law?

Net neutrality advocates say we don't need Kinzinger's legislation. The FCC's chairman has testified before Congress that the agency has no plans to regulate rates. He has also noted that the FCC added measures to its regulations that would prevent the commission from dictating rates in the future.

The bill's real aim, Net neutrality advocates say, is to strip the FCC of its ability to regulate any unfair practices on the Internet.

"Under the Kinzinger bill, broadband providers could try to characterize any and every determination the FCC makes as a rate regulation," Matt Wood, policy director of the Free Press Action Fund, a nonprofit devoted to a diversity of voices in media, said in a column published by Bloomberg BNA.

The bill is still in committee and is a long way from becoming law.

So will the courts finally provide some resolution to the Net neutrality debate?

Probably not. Legal experts expect that any decision, regardless of who wins, will be appealed to the Supreme Court. And even if the FCC does ultimately get to enforce the regulations, you can expect more lawsuits attacking how the agency applies them.

That's why no one's breaking into a victory lap just yet.