What is net neutrality?

On Nov. 10, President Barack Obama came out in support of “the strongest possible rules to protect net neutrality.”

Net neutrality is back in the news -- following President Barack Obama’s Nov. 10 proposal for "the strongest possible rules to protect net neutrality."

What is net neutrality? It’s the idea that Internet service providers (like Comcast and Verizon) should treat all web content equally. Net neutrality supporters think Internet service should operate like electricity. Consumers pay a fee to an Internet service provider, and they get equal access to the whole Internet -- every website, big and small -- without any interference from the service providers.

Some Internet service providers, however, want to be able to go into financial arrangements that would give particular websites prioritized access to Internet users (kind of like cable companies’ arrangements with cable channels). For example, Netflix has a financial agreement with Comcast so that the video streaming website will have faster and more reliable access to home viewers.

Proponents of net neutrality worry that if this trend continues, websites that are able and willing to pay Internet service providers for this prioritized access to consumers would have an unfair advantage over smaller operations or startups. But stopping this trend would require some government regulation.

The Federal Communications Commission makes the final call on how the government regulates the Internet, and the agency is in the process of designing regulations, after a federal appeals court struck down standing FCC net neutrality protection rules in January.

That’s where Obama’s proposal comes in. In his announcement, Obama said the Federal Communications Commission should "reclassify" Internet service providers as common carriers under Title II of the Telecommunications Act, meaning they would be treated as public utilities, like phone service -- and they would be subject to more regulation. Currently, the Internet is classified as an "information service," which greatly limits how much the FCC can regulate it.

Following this announcement, we updated the Obameter.  In his 2008 campaign, Obama pledged to "Support the principle of network neutrality to preserve the benefits of open competition on the Internet." For calling on the FCC for strong rules to protect net neutrality this week, we bumped this promise rating from Stalled to In the Works.

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and others think that these regulations are unwarranted. On Facebook Nov. 10, Cruz said that Obama’s net neutrality proposal "puts the government in charge of determining Internet pricing, terms of service and what types of products and services can be delivered."

We looked into his claim and found that, while theoretically possible, Obama said specifically that he does not want the FCC to regulate Internet prices, and the FCC typically does not regulate prices for similar things, like telephone services. In terms of product offerings, the proposal would allow the FCC to prevent Internet service providers from giving certain websites priority over others. But Cruz’s statement conjures an image of FCC officials sitting around a table designing Internet service packages and their prices, and this is not what Obama is proposing. We rated his claim Half True.