Federal Communications Commission Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel earlier this week kicked off a push to revive net neutrality, just the latest attempt to bring rules governing an open internet to the broadband industry.
It’s the latest turn of a soap opera that’s lasted nearly 20 years as regulators and broadband providers have tussled over what those regulations actually look like. Regulators, Democrats and tech companies argue there needs to be clear lines drawn that prevent practices like prioritization of traffic. Internet service providers and (more recently) Republicans argue the rules are overly burdensome, and they already follow the principles of an open internet anyway.
So while Rosenworcel’s steps to bring back net neutrality are important, it’s equally critical that you understand how we got here, and how principles that were generally agreed upon diverged into a partisan, hot potato-like issue that has gone back and forth (and will continue to do so).
Here’s a timeline of some the key events that led us to today’s renewed push for net neutrality.
February 2004: FCC Chairman Michael Powell, who served under President George W. Bush, was the first to issue principles around the open internet. In particular, he stressed four “freedoms.”
- Freedom to access content
- Freedom to run applications
- Freedom to attach devices
- Freedom to obtain service plan information
While Powell’s principles weren’t enshrined in laws, the FCC did go after a local ISP for blocking internet phone service Vonage.
August 2005: FCC Chairman Kevin Martin, the second chair under Bush, issued a statement affirming the principles of an open internet. They were:
- Consumers are entitled to access the lawful Internet content of their choice.
- Consumers are entitled to run applications and services of their choice, subject to the needs of law enforcement.
- Consumers are entitled to connect their choice of legal devices that do not harm the network.
- Consumers are entitled to competition among network providers, application and service providers, and content providers.
January 2008: The FCC begins investigating complaints that Comcast was blocking certain traffic related to peer-to-peer applications (Bittorrent).
August 2008: Martin attempted to hold Comcast’s feet to the fire with these principles following the investigation. Comcast argued that the practice was just standard network management. A federal court later vacated the enforcement action, saying the agency lacked jurisdiction without any clear rules.
December 2010: The FCC, under Democratic Chairman Julius Genachowski and a clear mandate from President Barack Obama, created the Open Internet Rules that offered clear guidelines banning paid prioritization and blocking, while balancing network management. The agency argued that it had the authority to implement these rules under Section 706 of the 1996 Telecommunications Act. Verizon challenges the rules with a lawsuit.
January 2014: After four years, Verizon emerged victorious after a D.C. Circuit court ruled that the FCC didn’t have the proper authority under Section 206. But the court gave the FCC a hint of where to go next by noting how it could obtain that authority. So while Verizon was able to stop the initial Open Internet order, it opened the door to even more stringent regulations down the line.
June 2014: Comedian John Oliver dedicated 13 minutes to a segment on net neutrality, causing a flood of comments to the FCC in support of more regulation. The agency received 3.7 million comments, causing the FCC’s systems to buckle under the pressure. It wouldn’t be the first time.
February 2015: The FCC, under Democrat Tom Wheeler, took a second crack at passing net neutrality laws, taking guidance from its legal defeat. The court had said that while Section 206 didn’t give FCC the proper authority, changing the designation of broadband providers from Title I to Title II would do the trick. Title I was the designation for internet services and saw a “light touch” set of regulations. Title II was reserved for critical “common carrier” services like power and gas.
The new open internet rules were enshrined after the FCC changed its designation of ISPs to Title II, kicking off another round of lawsuits.
June 2016: The new rules were upheld by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. district.
April 2016: FCC Chairman Ajit Pai announces his intention to roll back the net neutrality rules, a Republican serving under President Donald Trump. He argued the rules were too stifling and would hurt investment in infrastructure.
December 2017: Pai succeeded in repealing the net neutrality laws following a lengthy and contentious process, one that included death threats.
June 2018: The change went into effect after an attempt by Congress to stop the repeal failed in the Senate.
September 2018: California passes its own net neutrality protections that go beyond what the FCC set in place, including rules for mobile traffic. The Trump administration filed a lawsuit against the state, arguing it “interfered with the federal government’s approach to the internet.”
June 2019: Maine passes its own net neutrality bill, which states that ISPs can only receive state funding if they agree to provide “net neutral service.” Over the last few years, 15 states have either passed their own bills or are considering it.
October 2019: The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the FCC repeal of net neutrality laws, but overturned the aspect of the rules that forbid states from setting up their own regulations.
September 2023: Rosenworcel, newly empowered with a 3-2 majority with the addition of Commissioner Anna Gomez, kicks off an effort to bring back those original Title II version of net neutrality rules.