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In many ways, it seems like the battle over Net Neutrality is a semi-annual affair. Every six months or so, the battle over Net Neutrality heats up, and whichever side seems to be losing suddenly gets a legal reprieve or some other sign that they should continue the fight. Case in point: just when it looked like the Trump-era FCC had finally abandoned Net Neutrality at the federal level, it now looks like the fight will continue at the state and local level. So where are we now when it comes to the future of the Internet?
The case for and against Net Neutrality
Let’s back up a second and review how we got to be where we are right now. The current head of the FCC has taken a hardliner stance on Net Neutrality, saying that Obama-era approaches to Net Neutrality were old and outdated. The Obama Administration, after all, still wanted to regulate Internet Service Providers (ISPs) like monopoly landline telephone operators. This, despite the fact that most people can’t even remember what it was like to use a dial-up modem to connect to the Internet.
According to the Trump-era FCC, Net Neutrality was anti-business and hampering the spirit of innovation, especially when it comes to the rollout of 5G networks. And, truth be told, the U.S. is lagging behind the rest of the world in terms of building out super-fast 5G networks. Spend any time in Europe or Asia, and you’ll be blown away how much faster they are adapting to a 5G world.
The big problem, though, is that there is something anti-American and anti-democratic about abandoning Net Neutrality. Net Neutrality, after all, is all about a free and open Internet. It’s about the right to freedom of expression. And it’s about small website operators given the same rights as larger, more powerful web rivals. Internet service providers shouldn’t be able to block, throttle or interfere with Internet traffic. So it’s inevitable that advocates for Net Neutrality have no intention of giving up anytime soon.
The FCC can’t block Net Neutrality at the state level
Net neutrality advocates are now holding out hope, given that the Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit recently opened a legal backdoor of sorts for Net Neutrality supporters. According to the court, there is no way to block the FCC from abandoning net neutrality. A 2005 Supreme Court case known as Brand X ruled that broadband Internet should be considered an “information service,” and that established the precedent for the FCC’s current policy stance.
However – and it’s a big “however” – the court also said that it can’t block states from writing their own Net Neutrality rules. That opens the door for states such as California, chock full of Internet companies, to pass Net Neutrality at the state level. Presumably, other states would also get on board, and adapt the California version of Net Neutrality as a paradigm and template for the rest of the nation.
The future of the Internet
At the end of the day, the future of the Internet largely boils down to a single question: Should the modern Internet be regulated as a common-carrier telecom service or an information service? As you might have guessed, there’s no good way to answer this question. The Internet is both – and much more than that as well. So what might be needed is entirely new legislation and entirely new interpretations of that legislation. Otherwise, we’ll keep having these debates over Net Neutrality forever.