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What is net neutrality, and should you worry about it?

Researched by
Shubham ArgawalContributing Writer
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Reviewed by
Updated 5/16/23

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Net neutrality is a principle that ensures internet service providers (ISPs) like AT&T and Verizon treat all connections and data equally or, in other words, act as neutrals. It prevents them from blocking any content and slowing down your experience on, say, Netflix, in favor of another video-streaming app.

With net neutrality, everyone can access everything available online with one data plan. Despite its apparent benefits for internet users, net neutrality regulation has been controversial. The United States famously repealed its net neutrality laws in 2017. (1) So what are the pros and cons of net neutrality, and should you worry about it?

What is net neutrality?

Net neutrality (also known as network neutrality) is a concept first coined by Tim Wu, a former White House technologist and current professor at Columbia Law University. In the early 2000s, when broadband companies were banning customers from certain services and equipment (like VPNs and routers), Wu argued that such unfair practices could stifle innovation and must be regulated. (2)

Net neutrality seeks to classify internet service as essential to society’s function, like telephones. Similar to how landline operators can’t control who you call or what you talk about, net neutrality blocks internet service providers from having a say over how you use your internet connection.

Net neutrality requires ISPs to offer both users and online content providers like Netflix consistent rates and speeds, and to not discriminate traffic based on the website’s content, device, location, etc. Net neutrality laws state that internet providers can’t filter or block any website without a court order, nor put the ones that pay them extra in “fast lanes” and load them quicker than the rest.

How net neutrality affects internet use

Net neutrality affects each aspect of the way we browse the internet, so it can have far-reaching consequences on our digital lives.

Imagine when you plug your phone in, it doesn’t charge—even though your other appliances are working fine. Instead, you get an email from your utility company that says your phone maker isn’t included in your electricity plan, and you’ll have to pay extra to charge it. That never happens because you’re free to use the electricity in your home however you wish to. Net neutrality brings similar constraints to internet access.

With net neutrality in place, an ISP is forced to treat each website equally. It can’t prioritize companies that pay it more or let people browse its own services for free to encourage them to use them. Unlike cable TV, you don’t have to spend to add specific websites to your package; you can visit any websites you want in the same data plan. This means your ISP can’t let you scroll one website for free while charging for another.

In 2016, for example, AT&T breached net neutrality laws by letting its customers stream videos on its in-house DIRECTV platform without counting it against their data allowance. (3) However, watching Netflix or any other video app still chewed through their limit. Since AT&T controlled the internet connection as the ISP, it gave itself an advantage. It similarly prevented iPhone users from making Skype and internet calls in 2009 to push them to use its own 3G network service. (4)

Without net neutrality, internet service providers can monitor what you do on the internet and throttle your experience to urge you to pay extra. A few years ago, for instance, Comcast's "unlimited" plan limited any video its subscribers streamed on mobile to 480p and hotspot sharing to ​​600 Kbps. For better speeds, subscribers had to pay $12 extra for every gigabyte. (5)

What’s more important, net neutrality prohibits ISPs from specifically determining the speed at which customers browse websites. So an ISP can’t agree to boost a large corporation’s services at an added cost and throttle the bandwidth for smaller websites, like a local newspaper, that can’t afford to match it.

Theoretically, a world without net neutrality could allow internet service providers to do things like throttle your Netflix connection because it has a partnership with Hulu or make it so painfully slow to access an independent news source that you give up and get your information from the big media conglomerate that pays to get their side of the story seen. However, those who argue against net neutrality say that this cyberpunk dystopia is far-fetched, and the increased regulation of net neutrality actually harms internet users and technological innovation.

Why is net neutrality controversial?


  • Enables equal access to the internet for everyone
  • Prevents bandwidth throttling by ISPs
  • ISPs don’t have control over online content

  • All customers, even those with lighter internet use, shoulder the same internet costs
  • Limits resources for ISPs to expand infrastructure
  • ISPs can’t prioritize data for things like hospital equipment or self-driving cars
  • Objectionable content has the same priority as other content

Over the years, pushback from internet service providers and opposing lawmakers have made net neutrality rules controversial.

One of the key arguments often made against net neutrality is that it limits the internet service provider’s ability to earn more and use those additional resources to innovate and expand infrastructure. If the ISP could customize pricing for users and content providers depending on their needs, the theory is that it would be possible to increase ISP revenues, which would allow them to do things like build out fiber infrastructure to rural and underserved areas and lessen the “connectivity divide.”

However, independent analysts have concluded that the Open Internet Order has not discouraged investment, and executives of telecoms themselves have agreed neutrality won’t affect their investments much, if at all. (6)

Another upside of abolishing net neutrality is that it would allow customers to cherry-pick an internet plan that best suits their usage. Without net neutrality, ISPs can fine-tune their offerings based on how someone spends their time on the internet. Video apps like YouTube and Netflix are responsible for half of the internet’s traffic, but someone who doesn’t stream videos at all shouldn’t have to shoulder the costs of hosting those high-definition files.

Some still believe tiered internet plans will only put customers at a disadvantage, as evident from Comcast’s failed unlimited plans, which charged people extra for faster video and hotspot bandwidth. Besides, people’s online activities are more diverse than ever, and it’s unlikely a user will fit in any cable TV-like package. A 2010 study, for instance, found more than 70% of internet users in the US watch videos online. (7)

In addition to these common ideas, there are a few more interesting arguments against net neutrality. Net neutrality laws require all content to be presented equally on the internet. Just as this allows you to get your news from wherever you want and use the streaming provider of your choice, it also allows people to publish questionable and illicit content anywhere and give everyone equal access. Without net neutrality, ISPs would be able to block things like pornography streaming sites on a network-wide level, making it more difficult for children to bypass parental controls or access age-inappropriate content accidentally.

The repeal of net neutrality also allows ISPs to prioritize data. While this fact is used in arguments for net neutrality (you don’t want your ISP throttling your data to competitor sites), this prioritization could also be used for good – prioritizing life-saving medical devices, self-driving cars, and other important connections that could create a safer, more technologically advanced world.

In the United States, net neutrality has especially been a contentious concept because its regulation depends on the nearly century-old Communications Act of 1934, and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and telcos have frequently gone back and forth over the law’s language.

Net neutrality proponents want to place ISPs in the same bracket as telephone, gas, and electric providers, which would classify them as common carriers and prevent activities like throttling and blocking content. ISPs have argued in court that it’s a depression-era rule incompatible with the modern internet.

Does the US still have net neutrality?

At the time of writing, the United States doesn’t have net neutrality.

The US formed a strong net neutrality law in 2015 called the Open Internet Order that banned ISPs from controlling what flows through their network and put them in the same category as gas and electric providers. But these rules were revoked in 2017 by former FCC chairman, Ajit Pai, and replaced with a much lighter framework. (1)

The 2017 FCC ruling lifted all restrictions on how ISPs operated. As long as they are transparent, ISPs can now theoretically charge people more for specific websites, slow down their bandwidth on certain services, and more.

However, we’re yet to see any real effects of the lack of net neutrality in the United States. That’s primarily because, since the FCC repealed it in 2017, individual US states have passed their own net neutrality legislation, blocking any drastic measures by ISPs. Washington was the first to do this successfully in 2018, followed by Oregon and California; two years later, President Joe Biden signed an executive order calling for the FCC to undo its 2017 changes. (8)

As a result of the pushback from states, for example, AT&T had to discontinue its “sponsored data” service, which allowed its subscribers to stream the ISP’s in-house apps like AT&T TV and DIRECTV without eating into their monthly data allowance. (9)

In 2022, Democrat senators revived their fight for net neutrality with the Net Neutrality and Broadband Justice Act, which reclassifies broadband internet as an essential service. Its progress is currently stalled in Congress due to a deadlocked 2-2 panel of FCC commissioners. (10)

How do countries outside the US handle net neutrality?

Countries across the world have laid their own, unique measures for net neutrality. The European Union’s Open Internet order prohibits ISPs from interfering with internet traffic unless they’re asked to do so by the government. (11) Similarly, India enforces one of the strongest net neutrality laws, which can revoke an internet service provider’s license if they fail to comply. (12)

Authoritarian countries like Russia and China, however, run a closed internet system, where the government actively decides what’s allowed online and degrades or blocks the services that don’t meet its content criteria.

Other countries fall in the middle, enforcing some aspects of net neutrality and not others, or leaving such regulation to the internet companies themselves, which agree to certain standards of neutrality in order to stay competitive. Net neutrality is not a take it or leave it concept, and a middle-ground with laws that keep consumers safe while still promoting freedom of information is the ideal that many countries are attempting to achieve.

What can you do about net neutrality?

The fate of net neutrality lies in the hands of government officials and the courts, and there’s little you can do other than advocate for or against it in your local community.

If your internet service provider is throttling your connection based on your online activities, you can sign up for a Virtual Private Network (VPN). A VPN will act as an intermediary between you and your ISP and prevent it from snooping on what you’re doing on the internet.

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Data throttling is the process through which internet service providers (ISPs) massively lower your internet speed, either because you’ve exceeded your data cap or because too many people are using up the network’s bandwidth at once. Some ISPs will also throttle your internet if they detect you’re using a lot of peer-to-peer (P2P) connections, or if they’re trying to cut costs.
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Contributing researcher
Researched by
Shubham ArgawalContributing Writer
Contributing reviewers
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Reviewed by
Michal AshManaging Editor

Michal directs the Switchful content strategy and leads the editorial team. With a bachelor’s degree in Communications, she has more than a decade of experience in the world of marketing communications. Her diverse career has included public relations, brand development, digital strategies, and more; her key skillset has always been centered around strategic efforts for consumer-focused initiatives. In her free time, you can find her camping with friends, chasing waterfalls on her kayak, or searching for the best restaurants in Salt Lake City.

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Reviewed by
Bri FieldAssigning Editor

Bri Field has a background in academia, research writing, and brand marketing. She has edited scientific publications, conference papers, digital content, and technical communications. As Assigning Editor, she enjoys ensuring all content is accurate, clear, and helpful. In her free time, you can find her in the kitchen trying a new recipe, out on a hike, or working through her massive TBR list.

Endnotes and sources

1. “F.C.C. repeals net neutrality rules,” The New York Times. Accessed 28 Feb 2023.

2. “Network neutrality, broadband discrimination,” Journal on Telecommunications and High Technology Law. Accessed 28 Feb 2023.

3. “AT&T users will be able to stream DirecTV Now without using their data,” The Verge. Accessed 28 Feb 2023.

4. “AT&T relents, opens iPhone to skype, VoIP,” Wired. Accessed 28 Feb 2023.

5. “Comcast starts throttling mobile video, will charge extra for HD streams,” Ars Technica. Accessed 28 Feb 2023.

6. “These are the arguments against net neutrality and why they’re wrong,” TechCrunch. Accessed 28 Feb 2023.

7. “The state of online video,” Pew Research Center. Accessed 28 Feb 2023.

8. “Biden's call to restore net neutrality,” CNET. Accessed 28th Feb 2023.

9. “AT&T discontinues 'sponsored data' due to California's net neutrality law,” CNET. Accessed 01st March 2023.

10. “Senate bill aims to restore net neutrality, including throttling safeguards,” Engadget. Accessed 01st March 2023.

11. “All you need to know about the Open Internet rules in the EU,” The Body of European Regulators for Electronic Communications. Accessed 28th Feb 2023.

12. “India adopts 'world's strongest' net neutrality norms,” BBC News. Accessed 28th Feb 2023.