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Net neutrality - what does it really mean? Time

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On Thursday, the Federal Communications Commission voted to roll back net neutrality regulations passed by the agency two years ago. Here are the answers to some frequently asked questions:

Q: What is net neutrality?

A: Net neutrality, or open Internet, is the principle that Internet service providers (ISPs) should give consumers access to all legal content and applications on an equal basis, without favoring some sources or blocking others. It prohibits ISPs from charging content providers for speedier delivery of their content on "fast lanes" and deliberately slowing the content from content providers that may compete with ISPs.

Q: What were the net neutrality rules before? Why should I care?

A: In February 2015, the FCC, then chaired by Democrat Tom Wheeler, passed regulations giving the agency the ability to protect the principles of net neutrality. In the 3-2 vote, Democratic commissioners Mignon Clyburn and Jessica Rosenworcel voted yes, along with Wheeler, who was appointed by President Obama, while then-commissioner Pai and commissioner Michael O'Rielly, both Republicans, voted no.

The regulations aimed to ensure that all the Internet content you want to access — be it streaming video, audio or other material — would be treated equally by ISPs. Another goal: to give start-ups and entrepreneurs access to broadband networks without undue influence from the ISPs.

Q: So how did this change things when I'm, say, streaming Netflix?

A: In theory, the only thing that changed is that there are actual regulations on the books that prohibited ISPs' discriminating against content. An ISP will be prohibited from slowing the delivery of a TV show simply because it's streamed by a video company that competes with a subsidiary of the ISP. That did not mean everyone would get the same level of Internet service — remember, customers already pay for different speeds.

Q: What's the difference between an ISP and a content provider?

A: An ISP is a company like AT&T, Verizon, Comcast, Cox and Charter that provides you with access to the Internet. Content providers include companies like Netflix and Amazon that create and/or distribute videos and programs. Sometimes an ISP is also a content provider — and that's one of the big points of contention. For instance, Comcast, owner of NBCUniversal, delivers TV shows and movies through its pay TV and broadband services.

Traditional content companies, which include Google and Facebook, are worried that telecom and cable companies that increasingly own news sites and streaming entertainment services will give preferential benefit to their own subsidiaries.

Q: What has the FCC done now?

A: Pai, who was named chairman by President Trump earlier this year, voted against the rules in 2015 and publicly said he wanted to replace those regulations. Pai called the rules, which were supported by President Obama, an intrusive example of government overreach. He especially disliked how the FCC based the 2015 rules on authority from Title II of the Communications Act of 1934. That allows the agency to oversee ISPs as if they are utilities or "common carriers" like the traditional landline phone system. So set in motion a rule-making process that led to Thursday's vote.

Q: Why did the FCC even come up with Internet regulations?

A: The agency has been attempting to get some regulations on the books for more than a decade. The previous set was tossed out by a federal court in January 2014. Since then, the agency has had no official authority to protect an open Internet.

Q: Who supports net neutrality?

A: Content providers, Apple and Google among them, support the 2015 FCC rules' vision of net neutrality. They say consumers are already paying for connectivity, and they deserve to get a quality experience. Many consumers also support the idea of rules to protect the openness of the Internet. More than 4 million people filed public comments with the FCC about net neutrality when the agency was considering the 2015 rules, more than any on any issue it has handled. Some of those filing were trade associations and companies, but the majority were average people, supporting net neutrality.

In recent months as the FCC considered the repeal of those rules, the agency got 23 million comments on the issue -- but millions of them were fake submissions, many sent by bots, and nearly a half-million comments came from Russian email addresses.

Q: So who's against net neutrality?

A: More than two-dozen broadband companies, including AT&T, Comcast, Cox and Verizon, call the 2015 rules too heavy-handed and a harm to investment and innovation. They say they support an open Internet, but oppose those rules because they put ISPs at a disadvantage.

Q: What happens next?

A: Several legislators in Congress say they will support a measure under the Congressional Review Act to overturn the FCC's overturning of the 2015 rules. Congress could also act to pass its own net neutrality rules, which would supercede the FCC's plan.

The fight could shift to the courtroom as it did in 2011, when Verizon successfully sued the FCC over its net neutrality order. The 2015 rules survived a federal court challenge. Public advocacy groups and content provider trade associations could sue, separately or collectively, to nullify the FCC's action.

And New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman said he plans to marshal a multi-state lawsuit against the FCC's "illegal rollback" of the 2015 rules.

READ: Net neutrality is repealed, and critics are very angry with the FCC

Follow USA TODAY reporter Mike Snider on Twitter: @MikeSnider.

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