UPDATE (February 26, 2015)
The FCC has voted on net neutrality, and the Open Internet Order was passed by a 3-2 vote. Thanks to the Internet essentially exploding over the idea of anything other than a free and open Internet, these new rules regarding net neutrality ensure that Internet service providers such as Verizon and Optimum, as well as mobile carriers such as Verizon Wireless and AT&T, are required to be neutral passageways for Internet traffic. FCC chairman Tom Wheeler said himself that “no one — whether government or corporate — should control free open access to the Internet.” Read on to learn more about what this means for you.
On February 26, 2015, the fight will be over for one of the most controversial topics in both politics and technology: net neutrality. This is when the Federal Communications Commission or FCC will vote on whether to enforce laws on net neutrality. Net neutrality is the principle that all traffic on the Internet is treated equally, meaning that whether you’re a company as large as Google, or a startup claiming to have the next big thing, your internet traffic will be treated the same as everyone else’s.

For the majority of the 20th century, AT&T had a near monopoly on phone service through their ownership of the Bell System, the United States’ primary telephone system. However, in exchange for exemption from antitrust laws that promoted competition, they were subject to a high level of government oversight. Older communications companies like the United States Postal Service were considered common carriers, meaning that they were required to provide nondiscriminatory and universally accessible service, and in 1934, telephone companies (or rather, telephone company) were placed under these same restrictions. In addition, under these regulations, collectively known as Title II, they were considered public utilities, meaning that prices and other aspects of service were regulated, similar to power and water companies. After the Bell System was split up in 1984 into companies including CenturyLink, Verizon, and the “new” AT&T, these regulations on phone service continued to apply.

At the beginning of the Internet, people connected to the Internet over a phone line, using dialup from companies like AOL, and later DSL from companies like Verizon. Because it was accessed over a phone line, it was regulated as a public utility. However, cable Internet from providers like Optimum and Time Warner Cable was regulated in the same way as cable TV: as an information service. In 2005, the Internet was entirely reclassified as an information service in the United States by the FCC, relaxing regulations and giving Internet providers more freedom, for better or worse. Finally, in 2010, legislation was enacted by the FCC, ensuring that net neutrality is enforced as law.

However, in early 2014, Verizon sued the FCC and won. The DC Circuit Court ruled that the FCC has no authority to enforce net neutrality laws, because the Internet is not considered to be a public utility. However, the court did rule that the FCC is allowed to pass laws on broadband Internet. In April 2014, the FCC proposed allowing Internet service providers, such as Verizon and Optimum, to create paid “fast lanes” for Internet traffic, allowing companies that can afford it to have their Internet traffic favored over others. This proposal was heavily criticized, with people claiming that this can disadvantage a startup company by forcing them into the slow lane. Opponents of this proposal, including Tumblr, Netflix, Twitter, and Reddit, participated in an “Internet Slowdown” in early September by slowing down their websites to showcase the consequences of these rules taking effect.

Fast forward to today, the FCC has proposed an alternate route that President Obama has spoken in favor of: reclassifying the Internet in the United States as a public utility. This will ensure protections for the consumer, as well as, most importantly, net neutrality. Many people have said that this reclassification of the Internet will be the best possible way to ensure net neutrality. 

Since the United States is among the most powerful nations in the world, it’s clear that the vote on Thursday, February 26th will define the future of the Internet, deciding who will win: the Internet service providers, or their customers. Net neutrality is crucial to keeping the Internet the way it is now: a playground of sorts, that people use for learning, business, and, well, cat videos. If the reclassification takes place, the Internet’s future will be bright. Can you hear me now, Verizon?

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