If you like binge-watching Netflix, streaming audio, or online gaming, then you should be celebrating this week. And if your business depends on reaching a wide audience online, you should join in. A federal appeals court decision on June 14 means your internet service provider can’t slow down your access to particular sites, nor let others pay to be in a faster lane of service. It all comes down to the principle called net neutrality.
The court upheld the Obama administration’s net neutrality rules governing companies that deliver internet service to US homes and businesses. At the heart of the case was the Federal Communications Commission’s February 2015 Open Internet Order. It requires that everyone—whether they are individuals, small businesses, or large corporations—must have equal access to the whole internet, just like everyone has equal access to the telephone network.
Companies that provide internet service have fought against these rules. In addition to charging people for internet access at home, they hoped to earn even more money by charging content providers for priority “fast lanes” for their traffic. For example, without net neutrality rules, Comcast would be allowed to slow down (or even block) its customers’ traffic coming from Netflix—even though the Netflix viewers had already paid Comcast for internet access. And Comcast could speed things up again if Netflix directly paid Comcast even more money.
The rules were created out of concern internet service providers would reserve high-speed internet lanes for content providers who could pay for it, while relegating to slower speeds those that didn’t—or couldn’t, such as libraries, local governments, and universities. Net neutrality is also important for innovation, because it protects small and start-up companies’ access to the massive online marketplace of internet users. This week’s D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling establishes a level playing field for online information providers.