Story So Far: FCC net neutrality vote: What happened and how it affects Internet users

Ellen Pao, left, leaves the California Superior Court Civic Center Courthouse in San Francisco during a lunch break from her trial on March 10.

Ellen Pao, left, leaves the California Superior Court Civic Center Courthouse in San Francisco during a lunch break from her trial on March 10.

(Justin Sullivan / Getty Images)

The Federal Communications Commission voted Thursday to treat Internet service providers as utilities to impose net neutrality rules. Here's a primer on the debate and the rules the FCC has approved.

What is net neutrality?

Network neutrality is the concept that broadband network owners should treat all similar Internet content equally and not block any legal content. That means that Internet service providers shouldn’t be allowed to do such things as slow the speed at which certain websites or content load or block any legal content from loading altogether.

How had net neutrality been governed?

In 2002, as the Internet was growing, the FCC designated broadband Internet as an information service, which is subject to lighter regulation than it would be if it were considered a utility such as a telecom service.

In 2005, the FCC adopted guiding principles for online traffic that included a right to access for any lawful online application. Comcast challenged the FCC’s rules, and a federal appeals court struck them down in 2010, saying the FCC lacked the authority to regulate online traffic.

The agency adopted new net neutrality rules in 2010, which banned providers from blocking, fast-tracking or slowing any legal Internet traffic. Verizon Communications Inc. sued to challenge the new rules, and in January 2014 the court again overturned them.

What did the FCC vote on today?Full story

The commission approved a proposal by FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler to:

•Treat Internet service providers more like public utilities by reclassifying them as telecom services under federal law. This would open the Internet carriers to wider regulation by the FCC, though the agency would forgo regulation of rates and other matters besides net neutrality rules.

•Bar Internet carriers from blocking lawful sites, apps, services or devices.

•Prohibit Internet providers from throttling or slowing down the speed of certain traffic based on its content or origin.

•Ban the practice of paid prioritization, which allows certain companies or services to pay a fee to get faster connections.

Why is the FCC acting now?

Last year, in ruling that the agency lacked authority to enact the rules it had adopted, the federal appeals court suggested that a possible solution was to classify broadband Internet services as telecom services.

Net neutrality supporters fear that without strong regulations requiring service providers to treat all traffic equally, the Internet could eventually be segregated into haves and have-nots. They’ve called on regulators to act quickly to put such rules in place.

What was the vote?

The FCC has a 3-2 Democratic majority, and the panel's composition was reflected in the vote on Thursday. Both Republicans, Ajit Pai and Michael O'Rielly, have publicly opposed the rules. Pai has blasted the proposal, calling it a "secret plan to regulate the Internet" that "opens the door to billions of dollars in new taxes" on broadband services.

What’s different about the net neutrality debate this time?

A few key things. First, the FCC is trying a new approach to regulating Internet service providers. It is trying to reclassify them as telecom services, similar to conventional telephone service, under the federal telecommunications law. This would make them subject to greater regulation.

The rules passed in 2010 and struck down last year relied on a different section of telecommunications law and the latest approach was taken with the aim of withstanding future legal challenges.

Second, net neutrality rules would apply not only to network owners that provide Internet access, but also, for the first time, to wireless carriers that connect smartphones, tablets and other devices to the Web.

Who supports strict net neutrality rules?

Internet companies such as Google and streaming services such as Netflix and Hulu that rely on high-speed connections support the concept of treating all similar Internet traffic equally.

Consumer advocates and most Democrats, including President Obama, argue that strict rules are needed to prevent broadband providers from altering the quality of Internet delivery, favoring content that they own or degrading content from competitors or those that lack negotiating clout.

If rules aren’t in place, they argue, Internet service providers will be free to charge some sites and companies to load their videos, music and other content faster, leaving other providers that can’t afford to pay, or won't, in a “digital slow lane.”

Net neutrality supporters argue that online giants such as Google and Amazon have been successful, in part, because of a free and open Internet.

Who opposes the net neutrality rules?

Many cable, wireless, and broadband companies oppose the FCC rules. Providers have long argued that companies that eat up the most bandwidth, usually video streaming services, should pay extra for that privilege.

They say that the Internet has been able to grow because it was largely free from government regulation. Broadband providers contend that the FCC oversteps its authority in setting any net neutrality rules, and they have threatened to sue the agency over the rules..

Most Republicans in Congress have also decried the FCC’s approach. They argue that there have been no widespread abuses so far and that the new rules could discourage Internet service providers from investing in network infrastructure. GOP leaders recently introduced legislation on net neutrality, an approach supported by cable TV and wireless companies.

Wheeler, the FCC chairman, recently cited the reclassification of mobile voice calling in the 1990s as an example of the "light touch" the FCC could take in regulating broadband companies. Congress reclassified mobile voice calling, a service that cellphone companies provide, as a utility in 1993, and since then has exempted such service from some of the most onerous parts of the telecommunications law.

Do net neutrality rules solve sudden interruptions in video streaming?

Not necessarily. Netflix has had disputes with Internet service providers in the past, with each side blaming the other for buffering issues on the streaming video service. But the dispute centered on how quickly Netflix data was delivered from the company to service providers such as AT&T and Comcast, not from those service providers to consumers’ homes.

Netflix, which had been using third-party services to deliver its data, claimed it had essentially been forced to pay a toll to allow customers to stream movies uninterrupted. Netflix later struck a series of deals to cut out the middlemen and connect directly to Internet service providers instead.

The rules for net neutrality govern the so-called last mile of wires that connect your home to the network.

Though those rules will not directly affect the connections between content companies and Internet service providers, they would give the FCC more authority to mediate disputes such as the Netflix squabble with network owners.

For more need-to-know news, follow @cmaiduc and @JimPuzzanghera on Twitter.


Feb. 26, 10:08 a.m.: This article was updated with details about the FCC vote.

Feb. 24, 4:45 p.m.: This article was updated with details about the likelihood that the proposed rules would pass and with information about the reclassification of mobile phone companies.

The first version of this article was published Feb. 24 at 10:05 a.m.