What to know as the FCC restores net neutrality The U.S. will reinstate Obama-era regulations for internet service providers that promise fast, reliable and fair internet speeds for all consumers. What happened when those rules were taken away?

Net neutrality is back: U.S. promises fast, safe and reliable internet for all

The Federal Communications Commission has restored net neutrality rules that ban content providers from restricting bandwidth to customers. Michael Bocchieri/Getty Images hide caption

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Michael Bocchieri/Getty Images

The Federal Communications Commission has restored net neutrality rules that ban content providers from restricting bandwidth to customers.

Michael Bocchieri/Getty Images

Consumers can look forward to faster, safer and more reliable internet connections under the promises of newly reinstated government regulations.

The Federal Communications Commission voted 3-2 on Thursday to reclassify broadband as a public utility, such as water and electricity — to regulate access to the internet. The move to expand government oversight of internet service providers comes after the COVID-19 pandemic exposed the magnitude of the digital divide, forcing consumers to rely on high-speed internet for school and work, as well as social and health support.

Because the government deems internet access an essential service, the FCC is promising oversight as if broadband were a public utility. In doing so, the government aims to make providers more accountable for outages, require more robust network security, protect fast speeds, and require greater protections for consumer data.

The decision effectively restores so-called net neutrality rules that were first introduced during the Obama administration in 2015 and repealed two years later under President Trump.

The rules are sure to invite legal challenges from the telecoms industry — not for the first time. And a future administration could always undo the rules.

Meanwhile, net neutrality regulations are set to go into effect 60 days after their publication in the Federal Register.

But much has yet to be clarified about the rules: The 400-page draft order to restore the regulations has not been publicly released.

Here's what we do know.

What's net neutrality?

Net neutrality is a wonky term for the idea that the flow of information on the internet should be treated equally and that internet service providers can't interfere with what consumers do online.

Also referred to as an "open internet," net neutrality aims to level the digital marketplace, prohibiting internet service providers (ISPs) like Comcast and AT&T from running fast lanes and slow lanes — speeding up or slowing down internet speeds — for online services like Netflix and Spotify.

What's this latest battle about?

Without the net neutrality regulations in place, phone and internet companies have the power to block or favor some content over others. The issue has pit telecom companies against Big Tech. Net neutrality advocates — tech companies, consumer watchdogs and free speech activists among them — warn that without such regulations, broadband providers are incentivized to charge customers more to use internet fast lanes or else risk being stuck with slower speeds.

In recent years, the issue has largely become a partisan one. In 2015, the President Obama-appointed FCC chair ushered in the approval of net neutrality rules. Those rules were repealed two years later under President Trump after his pick to run the FCC called them "heavy-handed" in his pledge to end them.

Now, the return of FCC regulations has reinvigorated the net neutrality debate.

"Every consumer deserves internet access that is fast, open and fair," FCC chair Jessica Rosenworcel said ahead of Thursday's vote. "This is common sense."

As in 2015, the rules classify broadband as a utility service under Title II of the Communications Act of 1934.

The measure passed along party lines, with Democratic commissioners in favor of net neutrality and Republicans opposed.

What critics are saying

Opponents say the net neutrality rules are government overreach and interfere with commerce. In a letter to FCC chair Rosenworcel this week, a group of Republican lawmakers said the draft order to restore net neutrality regulations would chill innovation and investment in the broadband industry.

Dissenting FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr, a Republican, said that fears of a sluggish or pricey internet without the rules were overblown — that consumers benefited from faster speeds and lower prices since the repeal. Net neutrality advocates dispute the argument that broadband rates dropped when net neutrality went away, saying the numbers are misleading.

"There will be lots of talk about 'net neutrality' and virtually none about the core issue before the agency: namely, whether the FCC should claim for itself the freewheeling power to micromanage nearly every aspect of how the Internet functions — from the services that consumers can access to the prices that can be charged," Carr said in October, when the Biden administration proposed restoring net neutrality.

Some telecom companies argue that the FCC is trying to solve a nonexistent problem in its stated aim to preserve equal internet access for consumers.

"This is a nonissue for broadband consumers, who have enjoyed an open internet for decades," said Jonathan Spalter, the CEO of USTelecom, a trade group that represents ISPs such as AT&T and Verizon, in a statement following the vote to hand regulatory authority back to the FCC.

"We plan to pursue all available options, including in the courts," the group said.

What's happened when net neutrality went away?

What ended up happening in the years after the rollback went into effect in 2018 was so discreet that most people unlikely noticed its effects, says Stanford Law professor Barbara van Schewick, who directs the school's Center for Internet and Society and supports net neutrality.

For the past six years, she says, "a lot of public scrutiny on the ISPs and then the attempts to bring back net neutrality in Congress basically kept the ISPs on their best behavior."

Still, there were changes. Some ISPs implemented zero-rating plans, the practice of excluding some apps from data charges, she notes, or were caught throttling — intentionally slowing down consumer internet speeds.

Absent heightened federal regulation, tough net neutrality rules that sprang up in several states, including California, Washington and Oregon, also have continued to keep internet service providers in check.

"It's still being litigated," van Schewick says. "And so, it is fair to say we haven't seen a world without net neutrality."