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Protecting the Open Internet

Headshot of Barbara van Schewick is a Professor of Law and Helen L. Crocker Faculty Scholar at Stanford Law School, Director of Stanford Law School’s Center for Internet and Society

What does net neutrality mean?

A: Net neutrality is a principle that has allowed the Internet to serve as a platform for free speech, innovation and economic growth. According to that principle, Internet service providers like Verizon or Comcast that connect us to the Internet should not control what happens on the Internet. That means that ISPs should not have the power to block or slow down websites, make some sites more attractive than others, or charge Internet companies fees to reach people faster.

Q: Why do we need net neutrality rules now? Hasn’t the Internet worked well without net neutrality rules?

A: Net neutrality rules preserve the open Internet as we know it. The principle of net neutrality was initially built into the technical architecture of the Internet. In the mid-1990s, however, technology emerged that allows ISPs to interfere with what happens on their networks. Since then, the Federal Communications Commission, the federal agency in charge of regulating the nation’s communications networks, has acted to protect this principle in various ways, creating a de-facto net neutrality regime in the U.S. As a result, innovation and online speech in the U.S. have continued to thrive with only a few instances of blocking or discrimination. By contrast, in countries where ISPs weren’t prohibited from doing so, ISPs have often used this new technology to block or slow down sites to increase their profits, manage their networks, or shut out unwanted content.

ISPs around the world would also like to use this new technology to charge Internet companies fees to be in the fast lane. These fast lanes would give better service to companies who pay our ISP when their data travels to us over our ISP’s network. This would be a radical departure from how the Internet has operated over the past 30 years.

Traditionally, Internet companies have paid their own ISPs for access to the Internet, but they have not paid additional fees to our ISPs. Our ISPs are already paid by us. This system has kept the costs of online innovation and speech incredibly low. It ensures that everybody, including those without a lot of resources – start-ups, small businesses, nonprofits, artists, activists and educators – has an equal chance of reaching people online. The future of economic growth and democratic discourse in the U.S. and around the world depends on meaningful net neutrality protections.

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