On Tuesday, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai announced the Restoring Internet Freedom Order, a plan that many see as an attack on net neutrality.
The new rules would end regulations that keep service providers like Verizon, AT&T, Comcast and Charter from favoring some sites and apps over others, according to AP.
While the notion of net neutrality has been in the public consciousness since 2014 at least, thanks in part to comedian/commentator John Oliver, Tuesday’s announcement left many wondering just what the FCC does and how its new rules might affect their lives.
Here’s a quick primer.
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WHAT IS THE FCC?
The Federal Communications Commission is a government agency, overseen by Congress. It is the “primary authority for communications law, regulation and technological innovation,” according to the FCC website. The agency regulates radio frequencies (for those who remember the 1990 film “Pump Up the Volume”) and television content (see: George Carlin’s “Seven Words You Can Never Say” bit).
The commission was formed by the Communications Act of 1934, covered telephone, telegraph and radio. As the act got amended over the years (most notably with the Telecommunications Act of 1996) to include television and other new technologies the FCC gained new authority.
The commission has seven subchapters that regulate virtually all aspects of the communications and broadcasting industry, according to the Office of Justice Programs. This includes commercials; rates and fees; and broadcasting in the public interest.
Enter the net neutrality debate.
WHAT IS NET NEUTRALITY?
At its base, net neutrality is the premise that all information on the internet is treated equally.
For example, a internet provider such as Comcast can’t charge Netflix for a faster path to its customers, or block it or slow it down, according to AP.
It’s the status quo, how the internet has worked since its creation, according to AP. But there is the fear that those who control how you connect you to the internet could block or slow down apps and sites that rival their own services. The current FCC rules, passed in 2015 under the Obama administration, keeps that possibility in check by making sure cable and phone companies don’t manipulate traffic.
Those who advocate for net neutrality say undoing these rules makes it harder for the government to crack down on internet providers who act against consumer interests and that it will will harm innovation. Some fear it could lead to a a tiered internet, where users have to pay for the specific kinds of content they use.
Some point to Spain and Portugal, where the Lisbon-based telecommunications firm MEO has been rolling out mobile packages that provide users with add-on data plans limited to specific apps, according to Quark. The content is not blocked, but using data for apps outside the package costs more than those in the preferred packages, according to the story.
Those who criticize the rules, including FCC chairman Pai, say undoing them is good for investment in broadband networks.
“Under my proposal, the federal government will stop micromanaging the Internet,” Pai wrote in a statement announcing the new rules.
“Instead, the FCC would simply require Internet service providers to be transparent about their practices so that consumers can buy the service plan that’s best for them.”
Tech writer Molly Wood, who’s started an intensive Twitter thread on the topic, says the Net Neutrality argument comes down to whether you believe that service providers can be trusted.
WHAT HAPPENS NEXT
Pai distributed his alternative plan to other FCC commissioners Tuesday in preparation for a Dec. 14 vote. Although the FCC’s two Democrats said they will oppose the proposal, the repeal is likely to prevail as Republicans dominate 3-2. The vote for net neutrality in 2015 was also along party lines, but Democrats dominated then.
Information from the Associated Press was included in this report.