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Net neutrality has been a hot issue for the past ten years. The idea that all traffic through an Internet service provider (ISP) should receive the same treatment is one that’s been explained, debated, defended, and attacked in all manner of ways. But it appears that net-neutrality supporters have won the battle: FCC chairman Tom Wheeler announced this week his intention to submit “the strongest open Internet protections ever proposed by the FCC.”
The plan hasn’t been approved yet, but it does looks like net neutrality will reign, at least for a while. Let’s take a look back at some of the most important moments in this battle and see how the Internet banded together to support one of its cherished causes.
2005: Vying for VoIP
In 2003, the phrase “network neutrality” was coined in a law review article by law professor Tim Wu. It wasn’t until 2005, though, that battles started hitting the courts: in a case that had net-neutrality supporters thinking that things were going well, the FCC pressured an Internet service provider in North Carolina to stop blocking voice-over-IP (VoIP) services that were competing with their traditional phone services.
With this case people started paying attention, and a lot of people began to understand what net neutrality is.
After that, however, things stopped looking so good. The FCC repeatedly failed to support the principles of net neutrality over the next several years: cable Internet was deregulated, a useful bill failed to pass the Senate, and it became clear just how much force large ISPs were willing to put behind their anti-neutrality lobbying.
2007: Battling Over Bandwidth
In the late 2000s, activism started to really pick up. Activists and the Associated Press brought to light the fact that Comcast was throttling traffic that was being used for BitTorrent uploads, which consume a very large amount of bandwidth. The outcry led to a number of court cases, though ultimately Comcast won on appeal. The decision cast doubt over whether or not the FCC actually had the authority to legislate net neutrality.
While the Comcast-BitTorrent-FCC case was moving through the courts, the FCC issued a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking that would eventually become the Open Internet Order, which set regulations that would prevent fixed-line broadband providers from discriminating against or blocking lawful content (the rules on wireless providers were a bit more lenient).
In 2012, Verizon challenged the Open Internet Order in court, leading to an extended court battle between the mobile ISP and the FCC.
2013: Fighting for FaceTime
In late 2012, AT&T announced that only users on their “Mobile Share” plan, their latest and most expensive, would be able to use Apple’s FaceTime – effectively charging users extra for using the alternative to a traditional phone call. Activists decried this as a clear violation of the principles of net neutrality, and Free Press threatened to file a formal complaint.
AT&T backed down, eventually beginning to unblock the app for users of its other plans – though many people felt that they didn’t go far enough in allowing users of cheaper data plans to use the app. However, this success did strengthen activists, who continued to call for companies to respect net neutrality and be open about their pricing and access policies.
June 2014: Firing on the FCC
Net neutrality suffered a significant blow in early 2014, when a DC court ruled in favor of Verizon and overturned the Open Internet Order – even though Verizon admitted that the Order was the only thing that kept it from charging websites to reach its customers.
In the middle of the year, the public made it clear that they weren’t happy to stand by while big corporations and an impotent FCC fought it out in court. John Oliver, host of Last Week Tonight, explained net neutrality to his viewers and called on them to get in touch with the FCC to support it — 1.1 million comments were left on the FCC’s site, so many that it crashed.
September 2014: Staging a Slowdown
The FCC’s servers crashed again when an additional 3.7 million comments flooded in after the Internet Slowdown, a day in which websites symbolically covered the web in loading icons to raise awareness of the importance of net neutrality. Whatisnetneutrality.net, the home of the Internet Slowdown, says that the day resulted in over 300,000 calls made to representatives, 2.3 million emails sent to congress, and 777,000 comments filed with the FCC.
It’s safe to say that we got their attention.
2015: Winning the War?
With Chairman Wheeler’s announcement yesterday, it’s clear that the activism that’s taken place over the past five years has gotten through. The proposed reclassification of broadband Internet as a telecommunications service instead of an information service places it under the purview of the FCC, meaning that the Commission would finally have the power to regulate ISPs and have its rulings stand up in court.
Of course, there are certain to be legal battles over the reclassification of broadband for the next several years, and there’s a proposal going through congress right now that would remove the FCC’s authority to make these sorts of decisions (though President Obama has stated his support for an open Internet, suggesting that he will not sign the bill if it makes it to his desk).
Regardless of what the future holds, net neutrality activists can celebrate this month. Wheeler looks set to make it illegal for ISPs to prioritize Internet traffic based on payments from websites, which means no “fast lanes” that could disadvantage smaller companies with less cash.
With the President and Internet activists on one side and ISPs and lobbyists on the other, Wheeler is showing that he’s willing to stand up for what’s in the best interest of consumers.
At least for now, we’ve won.
What do you think of Wheeler’s recent announcement? Do you think it’s a good plan? Do you think it can get past the black hole that is congress and lobbyists with millions of dollars to offer? Share your thoughts below!