The One Thing You Need To Understand About Net Neutrality

The fight to save the Internet as we know it hangs on what seems like a technicality: Should Internet service providers (ISPs) be treated more like telephone companies or like email providers? The policy wonk term for this issue is "reclassification."

You might think it doesn't matter, but it actually makes a huge difference. The question of how ISPs should be classified lies at the heart of the current debate over net neutrality, or the idea that all web traffic should be treated equally. If the web were legally regulated as if it were a phone company, it would be easier for the government to enforce net neutrality. Consumer advocates are pushing the Federal Communications Commission in that direction.

At a hearing on Thursday, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler left open the possibility that the Internet could be reclassified as a public utility.

Here's what that means.

Wait, back up. What’s the FCC have to do with this? Doesn't Google run the web at this point?

The FCC regulates all U.S. communications by radio, television, wire, satellite, and cable. To do so, the FCC must "classify" the types of communication that happen over these media -- noting, for instance, that your email provider (think Gmail or Yahoo) should have to obey a very different set of laws than those that restrict and regulate, say, your mobile provider (think Sprint or T-Mobile) and your landline telephone.

Okay, so how does the FCC “classify” the Internet?

Before 2002, the FCC treated all Internet providers as "common carriage services." This meant they had to obey the same basic set of laws as, say, the telephone company -- they had to carry any data, no matter what it was or who put it on the Internet, without discrimination. Many people thought this classification made sense. After all, even in the early days of the Internet, many telephone companies (Verizon, AT&T) were already doubling as Internet providers, and many Internet connections came over phone lines.

In 2002, the FCC decided that broadband Internet wasn't actually a common carriage service. Instead it was an "information service," more akin to your email than your telephone. Notably, the FCC has far less regulatory control over "information services" than it does over "common carriage services." For instance, Gmail could decide tomorrow that it won't send any of your emails, and legally, the FCC could do nothing to stop them. Contrast that to telephones: Unless you stop paying your phone bill, the phone company can't simply stop your calls. If they did, the FCC would punish them.

So what do people want the FCC to change?

Many people believe ISPs should be regulated more like phone companies than email providers -- they believe the FCC was wrong to classify broadband as an "information service."

The logic is that Internet providers operate far more like phone companies than like email providers. Like phone companies, you pay a monthly fee for your Internet, and your Internet provider runs a cable to your house. These people want the FCC to "reclassify" broadband as a common carrier service, as it was originally classified, a la telephones.

Others believe that ISPs abuse their power as "information services," safe in the knowledge that as long as they're categorized this way, the FCC can't legally stop them from treating their users poorly.

For instance, broadband companies have long pushed for the right to give companies that can pay them lots of money special Internet "fast lanes" that will make their content load faster -- at the expense of the content of independent creators, which would load slower in an Internet full of "fast lanes." These special access agreements are currently a hot topic, and the FCC is considering implementing new rules that would sanction these fast lanes.

ISPs also have a nasty history of surreptitiously stopping content they dislike from ever even making it on to the Internet. This was most famously seen in 2007, when Comcast was caught secretly sabotaging BitTorrent uploads.

What happens if the FCC doesn’t “reclassify” the Internet?

Then net neutrality may die. In January, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled the FCC couldn't enforce its own "net neutrality" principles because the Internet can't be regulated in that way.

If the FCC doesn't "reclassify" ISPs as common carriers, ISPs will have free rein to create as many "fast lanes" and block as much content as they want: Big Cable's opponents say that could destroy the Internet as we know it.

Hey! There was an FCC hearing on Thursday! Did they talk about this?

Thursday's FCC hearing has accelerated the creation of "fast lanes." Anyone who doesn't want this to be the Internet of tomorrow would do well to be worried.

Language in this article has been clarified to better reflect the fact that the FCC is seeking public comment on reclassification.