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Definition: net neutrality


(NETwork neutrality) A uniform playing field for Internet transport. Net neutrality is the absence of restrictions placed on the transmission of content by the major ISPs that provide service to millions of homes and offices. It means all packets are delivered on a first-come, first-served basis regardless from where they originated. Net neutrality became an issue for ISPs as they began to stream huge amounts of video content from competitors that delivered the same services they offered. See ISP.

A Contentious Topic
Since its inception, the Internet has leveled the playing field for all participants. However, major ISPs such as Verizon, AT&T and Comcast have lobbied the FCC to charge websites based on traffic. Although it might seem reasonable to charge sites that disseminate vast amounts of content, users already pay their ISPs for Internet access. In addition, proponents warn about the implications without net neutrality. For example, website owners might be forced to pay fees to prevent access from bogging down in a lower-priority queue that could put them out of business.

In 2010, the year net neutrality was first enacted, an article in the Hightower Lowdown said "Forget the technology, net neutrality is about democracy itself-- the latest battleground in our nation's historic struggle for freedom of speech, a free press and the free flow of information that We the People must have to be self-governing."

The Rulings - On Again, Off Again
Net neutrality has been a bouncing ball as is evident in the following timeline.

2010 (Yes) Obama Administration
The FCC's Open Internet Order prohibited carriers from interfering with traffic to enhance profit.

2014 (No) Obama Administration
The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals struck down the 2010 order, stating that the FCC did not have the legal enforcement authority. The FCC even proposed letting ISPs create pay-to-play fast lanes, which was abandoned after public outcry.

2015 (Yes) Obama Administration
In 2015, the FCC voted in favor of net neutrality by regulating Internet service as a public utility. Based on certain provisions in Title II of the Communications Act, the new rules treated Internet connections as a telecom service rather than an information service.

2017 (No) Trump Administration
In 2017, the FCC gutted net neutrality.

2019 (No/Yes) Trump Administration
A federal appeals court upheld the 2017 federal law but allowed states to pass their own. More than a dozen states, including Colorado, Oregon, Maine and Vermont, have passed some form of net neutrality.

2024 (Yes) Biden Administration
In April 2024, the FCC voted once again for net neutrality by prohibiting providers from speeding up or slowing down Internet traffic. See dumb network and Freedom to Connect.