11 Net Neutrality Questions You Were Too Afraid To Ask

by Morgan Brinlee
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Americans are once again talking about net neutrality thanks to Senate Democrats. The Senate was expected to vote Wednesday afternoon on reversing the Federal Communications Commission's (FCC) decision to repeal net neutrality protections, which date back to the Obama presidency. If you're a little confused, don't worry: Bustle has you covered with answers to all the questions about net neutrality you're too afraid to ask.

The decision to repeal net neutrality protections was highly controversial, with a number of tech companies and consumer advocacy groups — not to mention consumers themselves — opposing the ruling. Critics argue that repealing net neutrality protections would hand internet service providers unchecked power, enabling them to manipulate their networks by throttling internet speeds and access unless consumers and businesses shell out more.

"The internet should be kept free and open like our highways, accessible and affordable to every American, regardless of ability to pay," Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said when announcing Democrats' plans to force a vote. "The repeal of net neutrality is not only a blow to the average consumer, but it is a blow to public schools, rural Americans, communities of color and small businesses."

Although the FCC repealed its Title II net neutrality order in December, the agency has been slow to actually role the regulations back. In fact, it wasn't until February that the FCC even entered its repeal proposal into the federal register. Here's what else you need to know to get caught up on the current state of play with net neutrality.


Just what the heck is net neutrality?

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Net neutrality is the idea that Internet service providers (ISP) like AT&T, Comcast, and Verizon shouldn't be able to slow, block, or speed up web traffic as they see fit. Rather, net neutrality operates on the principle that all web traffic be treated equally. That means an ISP shouldn't block, slow down, or otherwise prevent customers from accessing streaming sites like Netflix or Hulu in order to keep people hooked on traditional cable packages. It also means ISPs can't force people into paying extra for "fast lane" access or video-streaming packages.


Why should I care about this? Does it even affect me?

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According to Recode, FCC data shows that more than half of American households don't have a choice when it comes to who their ISP is because only one provider services they area they live in. That means that if an ISP decides to prioritize web traffic from customers who buy in to so-called "fast lanes," the majority of American households won't have the option of switching to a competing provider that won't slow down their internet access.

ISPs may also choose to switch to a usage-based pricing model or else bundle internet access much like cable TV packages are bundled. They may also provide faster access to websites and apps operated by companies that are able to pay more, putting smaller companies or startups at a disadvantage. Along with potentially inhibiting consumers' internet access and speeds, there's also the risk that a rollback of net neutrality rules would hit customers financially and impact the free exchange of knowledge and ideas currently happening on the web.


OK, but why is net neutrality back in the news?

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Net neutrality is dominating headlines once again because the Senate is set to vote Wednesday on a proposal to undo the Federal Communications Commission's (FCC) repeal of net neutrality rules.


So, how did we get here?

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A Republican-led FCC voted to repeal Obama-era net neutrality rules in December, despite significant protest and opposition from a number of tech companies, consumers and consumer advocacy groups. Along with axing net neutrality protections that prohibited providers from blocking or slowing internet access, the FCC also repealed rules that barred ISP from prioritizing access to their own content.


Wait, what's the FCC?

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The FCC is, by its own definition, an independent government agency overseen by Congress. It's considered to be the country's "primary authority for communications law, regulation and technological innovation." That means it regulates radio, television, wire, satellite, and cable communications in all U.S. states and territories.

The commission is made up of five commissioners, all of whom serve five-year terms and must be appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate. Rules dictate that no more than three sitting commissioners may belong to the same political party at one time. Currently, the majority of commissioners are Republicans.


Who is Ajit Pai?

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President Donald Trump appointed Ajit Pai, a former lawyer for Verizon, as chairman of the FCC when he first took office in 2017. Pai has long been an opponent of net neutrality, and he wasted no time rolling back net neutrality protections when he was named chairman.

In Pai's view, repealing net neutrality protections is actually an effort at "helping consumers and promoting competition." He argues that without net neutrality rules, ISPs would be more motivated to build networks in areas that are currently underserved. In fact, he dubbed his repeal proposal the "Restoring Internet Freedom Order." However, Pai is intensely disliked and often ridiculed among his critics (and there are many).


What is Congress voting on exactly?

Thanks to the FCC's repeal, net neutrality protections are expected to expire June 11 — that is, unless Congress acts. Senators in favor of saving net neutrality protections have proposed using the Congressional Review Act, which enables Congress to review and reject the decisions of any agency under their oversight, to nullify the FCC's repeal.


How likely is it that this measure will pass?

All of the Senate's 49 Democrats support using the Congressional Review Act to force a vote on reversing the FCC's repeal of net neutrality protections. The measure is also supported by at least one Republican senator, meaning there's a good chance it will successfully pass the Senate. Whether the U.S. House will follow their lead is anyone's guess.


Is this the only challenge to the FCC's net neutrality repeal?

No, Senate Democrats aren't the only ones seeking to challenge the FCC's December repeal. A coalition of at least 23 state attorney generals have filed a lawsuit challenging the FCC's net neutrality decision, calling its repeal "illegal." Mozilla Corp. and Vimeo Inc. also filed legal challenges to the FCC's ruling, according to TIME.


Are states doing anything to protect net neutrality?

Although the FCC's decision to repeal net neutrality rules included a provision aimed at preventing states from writing their own net neutrality rules, some have gone ahead and done just that. Washington became the first state to pass its own net neutrality law in March with a bill that bars ISPs from manipulating their networks with fast lanes, or else blocking and throttling access to online content.

Oregon passed its own law a month later, barring state agencies from doing business with any ISP that prioritizes certain online content over other content. Lawmakers in California, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, Wisconsin, Illinois, Tennessee, South Carolina, Pennsylvania, Maryland and Connecticut are also reportedly considering their own net neutrality laws.

In Montana, the governor used an executive order to force any ISP doing business with the state to follow net neutrality protections. Similar executive orders were signed by governors in New Jersey and New York.


So, what comes next for net neutrality?

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The Senate's vote is really just the beginning. Any resolution to overrule a federal agency's decision using the Congressional Review Act must be passed by both the Senate and the House. Then it must be signed by the president within 60 legislative days. It's unclear if the reversal measure would be able to pass either the heavily Republican-controlled House or get signed once if it were to land on President Trump's desk.

While Senate Democrats' attempt to override net neutrality repeal may be something of a long shot, it would, if it passes both Congressional chambers and the president, be the fastest method of protecting net neutrality.