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Net neutrality: a primer

What is net neutrality? It is the concept that Internet service providers should treat all content the same – that they should not block particular websites or structure their rates to favor one kind of content over another. Also called "the open Internet," this vision of the web would prevent Comcast from offering a cheap Internet package with content from NBC – which Comcast owns – but no content from CBS, ABC or Fox.

When did net neutrality become federal law? The Federal Communications Commission adopted a set of rules aimed at guaranteeing net neutrality in February 2015. Under the new rules, Internet service providers found themselves regulated like public utilities. In practical terms, the new rules barred them from favoring certain websites over others. They couldn't engage in what's called "paid prioritization," where websites pay Internet Service Providers, or  ISPs, so that consumers will be able to access their sites at higher speeds. The ISPs also couldn't deliver their own content at higher speeds than that of other websites, and they couldn't censor content.

Why is net neutrality ending? Because Donald Trump won the presidency and therefore the right to make appointments to the FCC, the federal agency that oversees the Internet. Now led by Republicans, the FCC voted in December to withdraw the Obama-era net neutrality rules and return to the looser regulatory structure that governed Internet service from the 1990s through 2014. Republicans argue that the Obama-era rules saddled Internet service providers with a costly regulatory burden that stopped them from expanding Internet service.

What will happen next? Net neutrality supporters fear a harrowing new era where the Internet service providers can control what people see on the Internet and find ever more creative ways to pay more for it. But supporters of a looser regulatory structure say none of those things have happened yet and are unlikely to happen so long as there's competition for Internet service – which, they say, will increase with less regulation.

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