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See Inside Scientific American Volume 310, Issue 4

The Internet Doesn't Have to Be Free

A brief history of the war for Net neutrality
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This month, my Scientific American column tackled Net neutrality, the abstruse-sounding, legally embroiled issue that pits the nation's Internet providers against lovers of free speech, even playing fields and the way things have always been.

Net neutrality has been in the news a lot lately and will continue to be—but it's not actually a new topic. In fact, you could write a whole timeline of Net neutrality's recent history…

2002: The Federal Communications Commission (FCC), led by Chairman Michael Powell, decrees that broadband Internet service is not a "telecommunications service," which means that it can't be subject to the same regulations that govern old-school telephone companies. Importantly, these rules would have forced Internet providers to treat the information going through their network in the same way that telephone companies treat the information going over their lines—a total "hands-off" policy.

2004: Powell says that he's in favor of an Internet industry free from "intrusive regulation" (pdf). Instead, he challenges the broadband industry to uphold consumers' four freedoms: freedom to access any legal Internet material, to run any applications, to attach any devices to their home Internet connections and to access detailed information about their Internet provider plans.

2005: Ed Whitacre, Jr., the CEO of Southwestern Bell Corp. (which later would become AT&T), triggers a firestorm when he tells Businessweek: "We and the cable companies have made an investment, and for a Google or Yahoo or Vonage or anybody to expect to use these pipes [for] free is nuts!"

2007: Comcast Internet customers begin to notice—and measure—a slowdown in their service when they're using BitTorrent (a popular peer-to-peer system, often used to download pirated movies and music).

2008: The FCC orders Comcast to stop slowing down BitTorrent traffic. "Would you be Okay…[if the postal system] opened letters mailed to you, decided that because the mail truck is full sometimes letters to you could wait, and then hid both that they read your letters and delayed them? Unfortunately, that is exactly what Comcast was doing with their subscribers' Internet traffic," said the new FCC chairman Kevin Martin. Comcast appeals.

2010: The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit throws out the FCC's Comcast order. The FCC, it says, lost the power to make such orders in 2002 when it refused to classify broadband Internet as a "telecommunications service." Late in the year the FCC, led by new chairman, Julius Genachowski, issues a new set of Net-neutrality rules. Consumer advocates call them weak and compromised. For example, they apply only to wired Internet providers, not to mobile ones. FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell and others, meanwhile, condemned the rules as unnecessary and probably unenforceable. "This new effort will fail in court as well," he said.

2011: Verizon challenges the FCC's rules in court, saying that the commission doesn't have the authority to enforce such rules.

2012: AT&T, after much criticism, allows any AT&T Wireless customer with an iPhone or iPad to use Apple's FaceTime video-chatting feature over AT&T's cellular data network. (It had previously limited FaceTime to customers who had signed up for AT&T's most expensive data plans—a classic violation of Net-neutrality principles.)

2014: The D.C. Circuit Court says that Verizon is right: the FCC doesn't have the authority to enforce Net-neutrality rules. Not because the rules are misguided, but because broadband hasn’t been classified as a "telecommunications service." Based on that (some now say foolish) distinction made more than a decade ago, the FCC can't wield as much power over Net freedoms as it can for, say, the neutrality of your landline phone. Following months of reports that Comcast has been slowing down Netflix streaming video transmissions, Netflix startles the world by announcing that it has struck a deal: It will pay Comcast for faster transmission of its shows. A shiver goes down the spines of thousands, who wonder if this deal marks a concrete end of Net neutrality.

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