Net Neutrality & Legal Implications
The controversial concept of net neutrality proposes that internet service providers (ISPs) should not be allowed to treat different types of data differently. Under this theory, ISPs should not block or slow the transmission of data, based on factors such as its content or the user receiving it. They also cannot provide advantages to certain services or websites that would artificially increase their traffic by making them faster or easier to access. The goal driving net neutrality is an open, non-discriminatory Internet in which all users can reach all websites with equal ease, to the extent that their content is legal. This vision remains far from a reality in the US following recent political developments, but its future may be brighter than it seems.
FCC Regulations and Net Neutrality
During the administration of President George W. Bush, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) sought to develop regulations that would curb discrimination on the Internet. However, the Supreme Court prevented the FCC from enacting these rules. Net neutrality resurfaced during the administration of President Barack Obama, when the FCC finally succeeded in issuing net neutrality rules. Under these 2015 rules, ISPs could not adjust the speed of traffic flowing to and from any given website according to consumer demand or their business preferences.
A backlash arrived swiftly during the administration of President Donald Trump, when the FCC retreated from the Obama rules. Their repeal faced a court challenge, but a federal appellate court decided in 2019 that the FCC could proceed, as long as it did not prevent states from creating net neutrality regulations. Following the election of President Joseph Biden in 2020, most observers anticipate a shift back toward the Obama rules.
Pros and Cons of Net Neutrality
Consumer rights and human rights groups generally support net neutrality and the vision of an open Internet. They argue that ISPs have an incentive to discriminate against smaller, newer companies that cannot pay ISPs to transmit their data at the same speed as larger, more established competitors with "fast lane" agreements. Net neutrality thus can promote competition and encourage innovation.
In addition, advocates for net neutrality argue that it promotes the diversity of viewpoints that is critical to a healthy democracy. Providing equal access to the broadest possible range of speakers and opinions furthers the First Amendment goal of creating a marketplace of ideas. ISPs should play a neutral role in this marketplace, simply transmitting information rather than projecting their own viewpoints by adjusting the rate of transmission.
Telecommunications companies and more conservative minds have challenged the optimistic vision of net neutrality. They argue that ISPs will lack the motivation to innovate if the government requires them to provide the same level of access for all traffic. Providing optimal access may involve certain fixed costs, such as installing fiber optic wires, and this may not be cost-effective if ISPs must charge set prices. Government regulation thus might lead to stagnation in the industry and discourage ISPs from exploring new forms of infrastructure that could benefit the public.
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