Home Tech News What Is Net Neutrality? A Guide to Understanding the Debate

What Is Net Neutrality? A Guide to Understanding the Debate

by Laura Herbek
Protestor arrested during net neutrality protest.
Protestor arrested during net neutrality protest.
Courtesy of The Daily Dot

Elizabeth Cady Stanton once said, “The history of the past is but one long struggle upward to equality.” It’s become increasingly clear that this struggle for equality encompasses not only the past but also our future. What began as a specialized defense tool reserved for a time of crisis has grown into a transformative force that impacts the way we work, play, shop, learn, communicate, and research. It’s no exaggeration to say that the internet has become an essential part of 21st century life as we understand it. And it is the internet’s undeniable value that makes it so vulnerable. What Ajit Pai chalks up to “hypothetical harms and hysterical prophecies of doom” many others understand as one of the most important human rights struggles of our time.

The fight for freedom of speech and freedom of equitable access are now inextricably linked. “And what would the government do once it is in control? Certainly not protect free speech as we know it here in the United States,” Pai writes, elevating profit-seeking CEOs to trusted keepers of sacred constitutional rights. Leaving a tool that shapes life for millions of Americans in the hands of for-profit corporations is at best a wildly dangerous experiment, and at worst an inarguable selling-out with far-reaching consequences for huge numbers of innocent people. The debate rages on, and with each new development, we learn more about what our collective future may look like.

Timeline of Events


On February 1, highly anticipated oral arguments regarding the December 2017 net neutrality rollback are scheduled to begin at the DC Circuit. On January 15, the FCC requested a delay in the proceedings due to the partial government shutdown. Their request was denied without comment on January 17.

Ajit Pai, appointed as FCC Chairman by President Trump.
Courtesy of New York Post


In the aftermath of the December 14 net neutrality repeal, the battle rages on in court.


The Trump Administration’s anti-regulatory agenda begins to be implemented.

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Another eventful year in the net neutrality debate.

What Is Net Neutrality? A Guide to Understanding the Debate
Courtesy of The Verge


The FCC makes a second attempt to establish net neutrality by reclassifying broadband as a public utility, a response to the complications raised by Verizon. The policy forbid the obstruction or prioritization of internet traffic, passing with a 3-2 vote; Republican commissioner Ajit Pai was one of the two dissenting votes.


David Cohen, Comcast Executive VP, declares, “I would predict that in five years Comcast at least would have a usage-based billing model rolled out across its footprint.” As of this article’s publication, data caps have become reality for millions of Comcast users.


AT&T draws sharp criticism for blocking Apple’s FaceTime app from running on its mobile network “unless customers paid extra for a Mobile Shared Data plan, which mandated they also pay for unlimited voice service and text messages.” Though AT&T claimed that the move was intended to preserve limited network resources, multiple groups threated to file formal FCC complaints, and AT&T eventually caved to pressure by allowing FaceTime and other video chat apps to operate on their network.


Verizon Wireless challenges the 2010 FCC net neutrality vote in court, arguing that the FCC had not given itself regulatory authority over internet services because they were classified differently than other public communications like telephone services. Verizon ultimately wins the case.

What Is Net Neutrality? A Guide to Understanding the Debate
Courtesy of HS Insider/Los Angeles Times


After five years of deliberation, the FCC votes in favor of increased net neutrality protections—a key Obama campaign promise. The new regulations demand that ISPs be transparent about their methods for managing network traffic, though wireless carriers receive less regulation than ISPs under these rules. In the FCC’s statement, Commissioner Michael J. Copps warns that “To be clear, we do not anchor ourselves on what I believe to be the best legal framework. Nor have we crafted rules as strong as I would have liked.”


This was a landmark year for net neutrality, marking the arrival of two major regulatory actions and the FCC’s 2005 Internet Policy Statement, and the Madison River case.

  • National Cable & Telecommunications Association v. Brand X Internet Services: The Supreme Court upholds the FCC’s 2002 ruling that broadband internet is an interstate service and therefore not subject to the same degree of regulation as telecommunication services under Title I of the Communications Act of 1934.
  • FCC August 5 decision: The FCC extends this less vigorous regulatory framework to include telephone companies who provide internet services. The FCC also issues a policy statement outlining four principles. The Congressional Research Service writes: “The four principles are: (1) consumers are entitled to access the lawful internet content of their choice; (2) consumers are entitled to run applications and services of their choice (subject to the needs of law enforcement); (3) consumers are entitled to connect their choice of legal devices that do not harm the network; (4) consumers are entitled to competition among network providers, application and service providers, and content providers.” Though the principles were not written into law per se, the FCC Chairman promised that these principles would be reflected in future FCC policy decisions.
  • Madison River ruling: The FCC orders ISP Madison River to stop blocking internet phone calls after the company interfered with internet phone services on its network in an attempt to protect its own landline business. Madison River was ordered to pay a $15,000 fine. This marks one of the first attempts to enforce net neutrality standards.


The term “network neutrality” is first introduced after some internet service providers (ISPs) start restricting consumer rights by outlawing private VPNs and disallowing users to install their own Wi-Fi routers. According to the Congressional Research Service, “There is no single accepted definition of ‘net neutrality.’ However, most agree that any such definition should include the general principle that owners of the networks that compose and provide access to the internet should not control how consumers lawfully use that network, and they should not be able to discriminate against content provider access to that network.”

Hey, chum. These posts don't write themselves. If you wanna stay in the know, it's gotta be a two way street.*

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