The U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is reigniting the debate over net neutrality policies as internet users continue to surge. However, the agency’s stance on this issue needs to be unanimous.
During a press conference, FCC Chair Jessica Rosenworcel recently made a compelling case for reinstating net neutrality. She underscored the significance of broadband access for all, particularly in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. Net neutrality is the principle that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) should treat all Internet data equally, refraining from blocking, slowing down, or favoring specific content or users.
“The pandemic made it crystal clear that broadband is no longer nice-to-have; it’s need-to-have for everyone, everywhere,” Rosenworcel asserted. “We need broadband to reach 100 percent of us—and we need it fast, open, and fair.”
Rosenworcel’s stance garnered support from various quarters, including the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), an international nonprofit digital rights group. The EFF applauded the FCC’s move to reinstate net neutrality rules, emphasizing that ISPs treat all data fairly and without discrimination.
However, only some within the FCC share this perspective. FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr, the senior Republican at the agency, expressed his opposition to the reinstatement of net neutrality rules. Carr argued that it was “unlawful” and aimed at increasing government control over the Internet. In 2017, the FCC voted 2-1 to roll back net neutrality regulations.
“Since the FCC’s 2017 decision to restore Internet freedom, broadband speeds in the U.S. are up, prices are down, competition has increased, and record-breaking broadband builds brought millions of Americans across the digital divide,” Carr asserted. “Utility-style regulation of the Internet was never about improving your online experience—that was just the sheep’s clothing. It was always about control.”
The concept of net neutrality dates back to the 1980s but gained prominence when coined by Columbia law professor Tim Wu in 2003. It highlights the need for a neutral network to foster competition among applications.
Efforts to enact net neutrality rules in the United States began in 2004 when then-FCC Chair Michael Powell introduced “Preserving Network Freedom” principles, emphasizing the freedom to access content, run applications, attach devices, and obtain service plan information.
Over the years, the net neutrality debate has become increasingly political. Rules were enacted under the Obama Administration, repealed under the Trump Administration, and now potentially revived under the Biden Administration, which appointed current FCC Chair Rosenworcel in October 2021.
Carr expressed concerns that utility-style regulation could lead to broadband rate controls, potentially stifling investment and innovation. He argued that adjudicating broadband rates under a “just and reasonable” standard should be avoided.
The debate over net neutrality continues to be a contentious and complex issue, with the FCC’s final decision yet to be determined.