Being able to freely exchange information was foundational in the creation of the internet, and the concept of network (or net) neutrality hinges on the idea that no one should get preferential treatment when it comes to that exchange. Net neutrality as we know it has three main components: no blocking, no throttling, and no paying for preference. Advocates of net neutrality fear if it is not written into law, internet service providers (ISPs) would have too much power, controlling what people see on the internet based on how much money they get from certain customers.
The ISPs, however, feel differently, claiming that some customers use much more data than average, so the ISPs should be able to charge them a premium. Further, ISPs say that charging some customers more would allow for investments in infrastructure and innovation, which could lead to an improved internet for everyone.
In 2010, the Obama administration tried to get the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to instate rules solidifying net neutrality, but they were quickly sued by ISPs and the rules were overturned. The administration tried again in 2015. When pressed in court in 2016, the rules were upheld, making net neutrality the law.
The victory was brief, however. When President Trump took office, he rolled back the Obama-era regulations and by 2017, net neutrality was a policy of the past. Though the net neutrality policies were popular among Americans, the administration sided with the ISPs, saying net neutrality was an unnecessary “heavy-handed regulation.”Despite the federal ruling, some states, like California, set up their own net neutrality rules. California’s rules were recently upheld in court after ISP groups attempted to get them struck down three separate times. The ISP groups were not granted their preliminary injunction in February of 2021, and the rules were passed. After that, the rules were upheld again in the Court of Appeals. Finally, in April of this year, the ISP groups tried to get a rehearing of the matter and were denied again.
California’s upheld decision has many similarities to the federal rules from 2016. The ruling “prohibits fixed and mobile ISPs from blocking or throttling lawful traffic and says ISPs may not require fees from websites or online services to deliver or prioritize their traffic to consumers. California’s law also bans paid data cap exemptions (so-called “zero-rating”) and says that ISPs may not attempt to evade net neutrality protections by slowing down traffic at network interconnection points.”
So what is next for net neutrality? Currently, there is nothing on the books for the Biden administration that would change any of the current policies (or lack thereof) that are in place. From the Covid-19 pandemic to the current soaring gas prices, issues that are not immediately pressing have been relegated to the back burner of the government’s priority list. However, as some ISPs migrate toward throttling their services with monthly data caps, net neutrality could become a forefront issue yet again.