Net Neutrality: A Recent History

Net neutrality is the principle that individuals should be free to access all content and applications equally, regardless of the source, without Internet Service Providers discriminating against specific online services or websites. In other words, it is the principle that the company that connects you to the internet does not get to control what you do on the internet.

Without net neutrality rules in place, ISPs like Verizon and Comcast can prevent users from visiting some websites, provide slower speeds for services like Netflix and Hulu, or even redirect users from one website to a competing website. Net neutrality rules prevent this by requiring ISPs to connect users to all lawful content on the internet equally, without giving preferential treatment to certain sites or services.

In the absence of net neutrality, companies can buy priority access to ISP customers. Larger, wealthier companies like Google or Facebook can pay ISPs to provide faster, more reliable access to their websites than to potential competitors. This could deter innovative start-up services that are unable to purchase priority access from the ISPs. Also, if ISPs can charge online services to connect to consumers, consumers would ultimately bear these additional costs (for example, on their monthly Netflix bill or in the cost of products from a local online store).

FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai (Courtesy: Daily Caller)

FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai (Courtesy: Daily Caller)


In January 2014, as a result of a Verizon lawsuit, the D.C. District Court struck down the FCC’s net neutrality rules. While the Court made clear that the FCC has authority over internet access generally, it found that the open internet rules specifically were built on a flawed legal foundation. The decision left it open for the FCC to decide what to do next to reestablish net neutrality.

In May 2014, the FCC, led by Chairman Tom Wheeler, introduced their proposal for net neutrality rules, which discuss the problems that occur when ISPs get to choose winners and losers online, but still allowed for fast lanes and slow lanes online, and did not go far enough to establish meaningful net neutrality. The FCC accepted public comments on this proposal, and received a record-breaking 4 million comments calling for reclassifying broadband as a Title II telecommunications service. This updated classification would allow the FCC to enforce net neutrality and would be in line with the court's 2014 decision. In response, President Obama endorsed Title II for net neutrality in a video in November 2014, and FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler published an op-ed proposing Title II authority, including for the first time mobile broadband protections, in February 2015.


On February 26th, 2015, in a historic vote, and after an unprecedented outpouring of public support, the FCC voted to pass the Open Internet Order, enacting the strongest net neutrality rules in history. By embracing its Title II authority and creating clear, bright line rules against blocking and discrimination, Chairman Wheeler and the FCC earned a reputation as defenders of the Open Internet.


The decision faced multiple legal challenges from the wireless and cable industries, but the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, the same court who originally sent the rules back to the FCC to be reworked in 2014, upheld the FCC's rules in June 2016, and denied petitions to reconsider its decision in May 2017.


Commissioner Ajit Pai was appointed as Chairman of the FCC in January 2017. Chairman Pai has a longstanding record of being against Title II classification, and delivered a speech in April 2017 where he announced a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking and laid out his plans to reverse the agency’s Title II classification of broadband service, and to undo some and potentially all of the current net neutrality rules.