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9 questions about network neutrality you were too embarrassed to ask

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On Thursday, the Federal Communications Commission is expected to approve the strongest network-neutrality rules yet. The regulations are designed to create a level playing field online by prohibiting broadband providers from giving some online content favored treatment over others. Otherwise, advocates say, websites that don't pay up could get slowed to a crawl. The rules will apply to both residential broadband service and the wireless networks that run your smartphone.

If you're just tuning in now, it can seem a little overwhelming. What is network neutrality? What's "reclassification?" And why have people been arguing so angrily for so long? Here's an explanation that starts from the very beginning.

1) What is network neutrality?

Facebook founders Mark Zuckerberg and Dustin Moscovitz in 2004. (Justine Hunt/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

When Mark Zuckerberg created Facebook in his Harvard dorm room, he didn’t need to ask Comcast, Verizon, or other internet service providers (ISPs) to add Facebook to their networks. He also didn’t have to pay those companies extra fees to ensure that Facebook would work as well as the websites of established companies. Instead, as soon as he created the Facebook website, it was automatically available from any internet-connected computer in the world.

That’s network neutrality. It's the idea that these companies should treat all internet traffic equally. It says your ISP shouldn’t be allowed to block or degrade access to certain websites or services, nor should it be allowed to set aside a "fast lane" that allows content favored by the ISP to load more quickly than the rest.

2) What’s the argument for network neutrality?

Advocates say the neutrality of the internet is a big reason there has been so much online innovation over the last two decades. Network neutrality keeps the barriers to entry for new websites and internet applications low. That freedom has allowed the creation of dozens of innovative online services, such as Google, Twitter, Netflix, Amazon.com, Skype, and more.

Advocates worry that without net neutrality, the internet would become less hospitable to new companies and innovative ideas. For example, if large ISPs began requiring video-streaming sites to pay extra to deliver video content to their customers, the expense and hassle of negotiating deals with dozens of network owners could make it difficult for the next YouTube to get traction.

Net neutrality supporters also worry that incumbent broadband providers could deliberately hobble new services that represent a competitive threat. For example, cable companies might want to slow down services such as Netflix that compete with their paid television service.

3) It seems like we've been arguing about network neutrality for a long time. What's taking so long?

Former FCC chairman Julius Genachowski, whose 2010 network neutrality regulations were rejected by the courts in 2014. (Robert Giroux/Getty Images)

For nearly a decade, the Federal Communications Commission has been trying and failing to craft network neutrality rules that will pass muster with the courts. In 2008, and again in 2010, the FCC took action to prohibit discrimination by internet service providers.

But in both cases, the courts ruled that the FCC had exceeded its authority, sending the agency back to the drawing board. The last time this occurred was in January 2014, when the courts said the agency's 2010 rules weren't consistent with the law.

4) Why do advocates want the internet to be regulated like a public utility?

Last May, Chairman Wheeler proposed regulations that network neutrality supporters derided as too weak. Since then, grassroots activists have been urging the FCC to take a controversial step called reclassification, which would give the FCC broader authority by declaring internet access to be a public utility. President Barack Obama endorsed this idea back in November.

To understand reclassification, we have to go back to 1996, the year Congress last overhauled telecommunications law. That law established two legal categories:

  • Telecommunications services are services, such as a traditional phone line, that are considered common carriers. The law imposes a wide variety of legal obligations on telecommunications services and gives the FCC broad discretion to regulate them.
  • Information services are services that allow people to store, process, and publish information online. In 1996, that meant online services like AOL. Today, it includes websites like YouTube or Facebook. These services are exempt from most FCC regulations.

The FCC lost in court last year because it had previously decided that broadband is an information service, and is therefore exempt from most regulation. However, the FCC has the power to decide which category to put broadband services into, and it can change its mind if it wants to.

Wheeler's announcement is a significant because he doesn't just endorse network neutrality — he's been an avowed supporter of the concept all along — but endorses reclassification too. If his fellow Democrats agree, as they are expected to, the FCC will have stronger powers to protect an open internet.

5) What are the arguments against Wheeler's proposal?

Google officials announce the expansion of their fiber broadband service to Provo, UT, in 2013. (George Frey/Getty Images)

Critics of network neutrality argue that requiring networks to treat all traffic the same could discourage beneficial innovation by network owners. For example, some applications (such as voice calling and online games) are particularly sensitive to delays delivering internet content. Internet users might benefit if they could pay a premium to ensure that these applications are given priority, but strict net neutrality rules could prevent that.

Network neutrality opponents also worry that regulations could discourage investment in network infrastructure. In some parts of the country, companies such as Verizon and Google have built new fiber-optic networks that allow speeds as high as 1 gigabit per second — 100 times faster than typical networks today. But these networks can cost billions of dollars to build, so many parts of the country haven't gotten them yet. If network neutrality rules make networks less profitable, that could slow the pace of investment.

Beyond these general arguments against network neutrality regulation, opponents also argue there are specific problems with reclassifying broadband as a high-regulation telecommunications service. Reclassification would trigger a number of regulations designed for public utilities such as old-fashioned telephone service. For example, the law imposes a complex system of price regulations on telecommunications providers. Critics say this cumbersome and bureaucratic rate-setting process is ill-suited for the fast-changing internet economy. Net neutrality opponents say these and other outdated rules would strangle the internet in red tape, reducing the pace of innovation.

6) How have Republicans reacted to Wheeler's proposal?

Most Republicans oppose reclassification, and they have been working to preempt Wheeler's proposal with network-neutrality legislation of their own. In January, Sen. John Thune (R-SD) and Rep. Fred Upton (R-MI), who chair the commerce committees of the Senate and House, respectively, announced that they were working on legislation to protect network neutrality without treating internet access like a public utility.

This represents a shift for Republicans. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) declared network neutrality to be "Obamacare for the internet" just last November, and Upton himself described network neutrality as a "solution in search of a problem" in May. But Upton says he's is so concerned about reclassification that he's willing to give ground in order to avoid it.

But Thune and Upton's overtures haven't been greeted warmly by network-neutrality supporters. Some of them have described it as a "cynical ploy" to undermine support for stronger network-neutrality rules. So far, President Obama, Chairman Wheeler, and other senior Democrats have shown little interest in compromising with the Republicans.

But Thune hasn't been deterred. This week, as the FCC was preparing to vote, he vowed to press forward with his own legislation. He'll be holding more hearings on the topic next month.

7) This is complicated! Can we take a music break?

Sure. Listen to Britney Spears, one of the first pop stars of the internet age, crooning "E-Mail My Heart."

The song comes courtesy of YouTube. While YouTube is now owned by Google, it began as a startup — exactly the kind of independent online service that network neutrality advocates say might have trouble getting off the ground without network neutrality.

8) Would Wheeler's proposal give the FCC authority to deal with disputes like the 2014 fight between Netflix and Comcast?

Advocates of a level playing field online have become increasingly concerned about broadband providers abusing their power in ways that aren't covered by conventional network neutrality regulations.

Traditionally, net neutrality rules focus on the connection between a broadband provider (like Comcast or Verizon) and the end consumer. But large broadband providers also have connections to a variety of other parts of the internet. These connections also provide opportunities for broadband providers to make mischief, yet many network neutrality proposals haven't focused on this part of the internet.

A controversy last year year illustrates the danger. In February 2014, Netflix agreed to pay Comcast to ensure that its videos would play smoothly for Comcast customers. The company signed a similar deal with Verizon in April 2014. Netflix signed these deals because its customers had been experiencing declining speeds for several months beforehand. Netflix realized it would be at a competitive disadvantage if it didn't pay for speedier service. After its payment to Comcast, Netflix's customers experienced a 67 percent improvement in their average connection speed.

Netflix has accused Comcast of deliberately provoking the crisis by refusing to upgrade its network to accommodate Netflix traffic, leaving Netflix with little choice but to pay a "toll." That might sound like a classic network neutrality violation. But conventional network neutrality rules don't govern these kinds of interconnection dispute, because Comcast wasn't technically offering Netflix a "fast lane" on the connection between Comcast and the end user. Instead, Comcast's negotiation with Netflix was over the speed of the connection between the two companies.

A fact sheet the FCC released on Wednesday says that Wheeler's will address this issue. Under Wheeler's rules, the FCC would " hear complaints and take appropriate enforcement action" if big ISPs make demands that are not "just and reasonable."

9) What happens next?

Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX). (Erich Schlegel/Getty Images)

The FCC is expected to approve Wheeler's rules in a 3 to 2 vote on Thursday. After that, several things could happen. First, companies and groups that dislike the regulation could sue to stop its enforcement. That's what happened after the FCC approved its last round of net-neutrality regulations in 2010: Verizon sued, arguing that the agency had exceeded its authority. Verizon eventually won its lawsuit. Reclassification is strongly opposed by telecom companies, so expect them to be ready with legal challenges.

At the same time, the FCC will probably face opposition from the Republican Congress. They'll grill Wheeler on his new proposal, and they may also try to pass legislation rejecting the new rules. However, it can be expected that such legislation would be vetoed by President Obama.

Finally, everything could change again if a Republican captures the White House in 2016. The new president will appoint a more conservative FCC chairman who could set to work reversing Wheeler's decisions.