Decoding the net neutrality debate

Posted at 11:18 AM, Feb 04, 2015
and last updated 2015-02-04 16:26:06-05

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Thomas Wheeler has announced his proposal on new Internet guidelines that he says will "ensure net neutrality”. It’s the latest development in an intense, months-long public debate about the future of the Internet.

In line with President Obama and most Democrats, Wheeler's proposal recasts the Internet as a utility under Title II, which congressional Republicans largely view as a massive and unneeded FCC oversight. In response, the GOP is drafting its own net-neutrality legislation that would ban blocking and paid prioritization but would strip the FCC of its power to enforce the regulations.

Title II? Utility? FCC oversight? Is your head spinning yet?

You’ll be hearing a lot about net neutrality in the weeks leading up to the FCC’s vote on Feb. 26. (A majority of the commission must approve Wheeler’s proposal before any new rules can be implemented.) And though it is important, the topic can be intimidating tangle of jargon. DecodeDC is here to help.

There are a lot of great explainers on net neutrality out there, and we’ve rounded up some of our favorites. Now you can stop emptily nodding your head when you hear things like ISP and Open Internet. You’re welcome.


What is network neutrality?

Net neutrality is the idea that all Internet traffic should be treated equally. Chairman Wheeler’s proposal would prohibit companies such as Comcast and AT&T from blocking, slowing down, or prioritizing web content in exchange for payment. As it stands, there’s nothing stopping  your Netflix binge watching from slowing to a trickle if the company refused to pony up cash to an ISP, or internet service provider. Vox has more on the nuances.

What is the FCC, and what is its role in this?

The FCC is an independent government agency directed by five commissioners who are appointed by the president. The commission is capped at three members from the same party, so even if it doesn’t seem like it now, it isn’t what you’d traditionally look to for partisan turmoil. Generally, they regulate any U.S. communications including radio, television and cable.

Even though President Obama started a political firestorm when he called for net neutrality rules in November, the FCC isn’t bound to do what he says. But if the Republican Congress gets what it wants, the agency could lose much of that power.

What is Title II?

Here’s the big issue at hand for Republicans who are leery of any proposed net neutrality rules. Chairman Wheeler’s proposal would use Title II of the Communications Act of 1935 to reclassify Internet service as a telecommunications service instead of an information service. What does that actually mean in plain English?

Well for one, it would give the FCC clear legal authority to regulate the Internet as a utility, similar to the way telephone service is treated today.  So when you hear people talking about regulating the Internet as a utility or common carrier rules, they are referring to the Title II reclassification.

But using Title II would also allow the FCC, if it wanted, to also step in and influence pricing of Internet services – and that has Republicans spooked. CNET has more on Title II’s history and function.

What about all those other random words I see?

Here are a few common terms you could run into while surfing the Internet:

Open Internet – another term for net neutrality

Internet service providers (ISP) – the companies that have laid down the actual wires and infrastructure that provides access to the Internet, such as Verizon, AT&T, Comcast and Time Warner Cable.

Fast lanes or pay-to-play – The system that could result if net neutrality laws disappeared that would slow unpaying sites load times significantly.

The Daily Dot has a more complete glossary.

[Related: President calls for tough net neutrality rules]

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