US President Joe Biden has taken steps to roll back previous legislation that attempted to halt net neutrality.
The Executive Order on Promoting Competition in the American Economy includes several provisions protecting net neutrality. It empowers the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to make it easier for consumers to switch providers.
In addition, it will also ensure service providers supply accurate information on prices and performance, along with improving pricing transparency.
“The American information technology sector has long been an engine of innovation and growth, but today a small number of dominant Internet platforms use their power to exclude market entrants, to extract monopoly profits, and to gather intimate personal information that they can exploit for their own advantage,” the order states.
“Too many small businesses across the economy depend on those platforms and a few online marketplaces for their survival.”
Net neutrality has had a rocky history since the term was first coined in 2003. While Obama-era legislation aimed to protect the concept, his successor, Donald Trump, sought to end it. With a turbulent history behind it, will this be the end of the battle for net neutrality?
What is Net Neutrality?
Net Neutrality is the principle that all internet communications should be treated equally by internet service providers. Traffic should flow just as quickly and at the same price between a massive website like Amazon as it does for a niche retailer, for example.
Without it, ISPs could conceivably slow down or speed up services for different websites or users, charge different rates for different content, or even for using different browsers. Proponents say that it offers a level playing field for everyone online, fulfilling the democratic potential of the internet.
Meanwhile, those against it claim revoking net neutrality would provide more customisable and better value services for consumers and businesses.
In a statement in response to Biden’s order, Republican Brendan Carr, one of the current four FCC commissioners, claimed that Biden’s rules would not strengthen competition in the broadband market.
“It does not propose actions to further accelerate new infrastructure builds or to free up more spectrum—steps that would represent surefire ways to increase consumer choice.
“Instead, the Biden Administration goes in another direction and seems to double down on price controls, government-run networks, and monopoly-style regulations—actions that would only make it harder for smaller providers and new entrants to compete.”
Back and Forth
Under Obama, in 2015, the Open Internet Order was introduced to ensure that net neutrality was enshrined in legislation.
That changed in 2017 when Trump was in power. The FCC’s new chairman, Ajit Pai, began the process to dismantle the order, ultimately leading two of the other four commissioners to vote to deregulate the US broadband market in 2018.
However, Democrats in the US Senate won a 52-47 vote to overturn the decision, though it failed to pass the House of Representatives.
The subsequent Save the Internet Bill in 2019, which aimed to prevent the rollback of the Open Internet Order, met a similar fate.
With Pai’s departure and the end of the Trump administration in 2020, Biden’s order has swung regulation back in favour of net neutrality.
- From Concept to Value | Why data projects fail
- Mermaids charity fined £25k for leaving sensitive data exposed for three years
However, the order merely encourages the FCC to act in favour of net neutrality. With only four of the five commissioner seats filled, there is currently an even split between Democrats and Republicans. Installing a fifth commissioner would be an important step to going ahead with Biden’s plan for net neutrality.
While Biden’s plans would only affect the US, the country’s technological prominence will have a major knock-on effect for legislation and businesses around the world.
Net neutrality is likely to remain a contentious issue, and if its history is anything to go by, nothing about it will ever be set in stone.