What you need to know about net neutrality

Updated Dec. 14, 2017, at 4:20 p.m.

The Federal Communications Commission’s vote to scrap Obama-era Internet restrictions creates the potential for broadband providers like Comcast and Verizon to divide their networks into fast lanes and slow lanes, throttle rivals’ video-streaming speeds, block content and charge websites simply to reach their customers.

In a 3-2 vote along party lines, the Republican-majority FCC rolled back the 2015 net neutrality rules that placed substantial restrictions on businesses that connect consumers to the Internet. The new regulations will take effect after publication in the Federal Register.

Here’s what you need to know about net neutrality, and how its repeal could change the way Americans experience the Internet.

What is net neutrality?

Net neutrality is a set of rules designed to make Internet service providers treat all web traffic the same, no matter the source. Its defenders say these regulations are at the heart of the idea that the Internet should be an open space where information travels freely without interference by broadband providers.

Under net neutrality, Internet service providers have been more like passive conduits of data than content managers. When a customer pays Comcast or Verizon for Internet service, they’ve come to expect to connect with equal access to every legal website, whether big or small.

If a broadband provider interferes — either by slowing or blocking access to certain websites, discriminating against content or charging companies fees to deliver data at faster rates — net neutrality has authorized the FCC to issue fines.

In sum, net neutrality has stood for the principle, backed by sanctions, that all Internet content should be treated equally by the companies we pay to get online.

How did the FCC’s vote change the rules?

On Dec. 14, the FCC voted to abolish net neutrality protections and undo an Obama-era move that placed the regulation of broadband on a stronger legal footing.

Here’s the quick-and-dirty backstory: In 2015, following a legal setback, the FCC changed the way it classified broadband Internet in order to preserve net neutrality protections. By reclassifying broadband as a "common carrier" — akin to airlines, telephone and electricity companies that have to serve everyone — the FCC solidified its authority to regulate Internet access providers and enforce net neutrality.

But the FCC’s vote reverts broadband back to its previous status as an "information service," and effectively removes the FCC’s power to create or enforce net neutrality protections.

Who benefits by repealing net neutrality?

Broadband service providers could increase their bottom line as a result of repeal. Looser regulations free up broadband providers to engage in the kind of financial arrangements that are now prohibited.

With net neutrality gone, Internet service providers can offer a website faster and more reliable delivery of its content in exchange for a fee. A broadband provider can also raise the transmission speed of its own content relative to that of its competitors. Broadband providers will also be free to block sites they find objectionable, which could open them up to political and public pressure.

Like their cable television cousins, broadband providers have more freedom to create tiered service packages, charging customers higher fees for premium services, or a different mix of options at various price points, including plans that block users from instant messaging apps, video sites, Skype or other services.

Repeal advocates have long argued that higher profits will lead broadband providers to invest more in infrastructure, which could make high-speed Internet more widely available in underserved places, like rural America (though some experts say net neutrality’s effects on infrastructure investment is an open question).

Repeal has been favored by telecom giants like AT&T and Verizon, who favor less government regulation.

Who stands to lose under repeal?

Defenders of net neutrality say dismantling the current rules is anathema to a free and open Internet, and hurts online companies and consumers alike.

Net neutrality proponents say undoing the rules gives an unfair advantage to big corporations that can afford priority access, while squeezing out startups and smaller websites. They argue this could hurt innovation; companies like Etsy and Pinterest may never have become the household names they are today without a free and open Internet.

Even tech giants like Facebook and Google have spoken out against repeal, saying it would allow broadband providers to manipulate access as a way to play favorites.

Consumers could also see the price of their Internet feed go up for access to sites like Netflix, which rely on high-speed and reliable connections to deliver the kind of seamless streaming content customers have come to expect. If Netflix has to pay for the fast lane, it could pass the cost onto customers.

As Roger L. Kay, an independent technology analyst, told the New York Times: Consumers "will end up paying higher prices for essentially the same service."

Net neutrality advocate Ryan Singel, a media and strategy fellow at Stanford Law's Center for Internet and Society, said the FCC’s dismantling of net neutrality means abandoning its traditional role as the protector of Americans’ right to choose which sites and apps they access.

"The FCC wants to put the greatest free market for innovation and free speech the world has ever seen at risk, simply to let companies like Verizon and Comcast to make more money," Singel said. "It's radical, rushed and unpopular across the political spectrum."

What happens next?

Procedurally, the next step is to enter the FCC’s new rules into the federal register, an index of U.S. government agency rules. After publication, which could take several months, the rules will take effect.

Following this, experts said they expect multiple lawsuits to be filed challenging the repeal—and two state attorneys general have already announced their intent to litigate.

Shortly after the FCC’s vote, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson said they would sue to block the FCC’s rollback of net neutrality.

Meantime, major telecommunications companies have promised that customers’ experiences would not be different without these regulations, though only time will tell how the Internet might change if the regulatory dismantling goes forward.