You’ve heard that a major federal court just murdered the Internet. Or something. It’s not really clear. People are shouting about “net neutrality,” but that sounds more like a newfangled tennis term than anything else. What does it mean? Why should you care? If you’re confused about net neutrality, we’re here to help.
Let’s say you’re trying to watch Netflix. In the next room, your spouse is checking e-mail. A believer in net neutrality would say that your ISP should provide both of you with the same quality of service. Just because you’re streaming a big video file and your partner is sending tiny packets of text doesn’t give your ISP the right to modify your Internet experience.
The court actually sided with the FCC on the whole idea of net neutrality, arguing that a ban on traffic discrimination would help keep the Internet an innovative place. But it ruled that the FCC had overstepped its legal authority in trying to do so.
To return to the Netflix example: Verizon could charge you an additional fee for watching Netflix, on the grounds that you’re using more data than you otherwise might if you were simply checking e-mail, like your spouse. And it also could demand that Netflix pay a fee to reach Verizon customers. Netflix could then pass those added costs on to you.
Or Verizon and Netflix could team up, signing a deal that gives the video company preferential treatment over, say, its rival Hulu. If you wanted to watch Hulu instead of Netflix, it might cost you extra. Or perhaps Hulu wouldn’t be available on Verizon at all.
These same dynamics could take hold beyond Internet video. Online gaming could become a premium privilege. So could doing academic research.
And ISPs would be free to mix and match these services however they wanted, perhaps creating a bundle of applications you could buy together as a package – much like you buy a cable package today that includes some channels but not others.
What’s more, some consumer advocates worry that small businesses might be crushed by larger competitors if they can’t afford to participate in a pay-for-play Internet.
Another path would be for the FCC to ask the federal court for a rehearing. This would require a vote by all the judges of the court. If the court votes to rehear the case, it’ll involve a different set of judges who might be more sympathetic to the FCC’s argument. It’s like asking for a do-over, with the hope of better luck. There’s some reason to think this could work; President Obama has been working to add new judges to the D.C. Circuit court, and assuming that Democratic nominees would be open to supporting a Democratic agenda at the FCC, net neutrality could sneak by that way.
The FCC could also try to create more authority for itself within the Title I classification. But any additional powers it got by doing that wouldn’t be enough to make up for what it lost in the case.