A Net Neutrality Timeline: How We Got Here

Updated:The FCC Tuesday voted 3:2 to approve an order that will enshrine the policies of network neutrality — the idea that ISPs can’t hinder or discriminate against lawful content flowing through their pipes — as regulations enforced by the commission. While legal challenges remain, and the text of the full order won’t be out for a few days, here’s the gist of what’s in store, as I explained last night: The order contains three sections that set policies around transparency, create a prohibition against blocking lawful content on wireline networks and certain types of content on wireless networks, and set up rules preventing unreasonable discrimination. More analysis will come later. Update: Here’s the release discussing the order, and the full order itself will come in a few days.

As for how we got here, this is a brief recap of the events and decisions leading up to today’s vote:

2004: In February, then-FCC Chairman Michael Powell gives a speech in Colorado called “Preserving Internet Freedom: Guiding Principles for the Industry,” outlining the idea of four Internet Freedoms in response to calls for some type of network neutrality.

2005: In February, Madison River, a telephone company, blocks Vonage VoIP services, creating one of the first cases of an ISP discriminating against IP traffic. The FCC later put a stop to the discrimination, and in August the commission proposed a set of four Open Internet Principles, which can be found here. As a policy statement, they were a start, but they lacked teeth because they weren’t regulations. They said consumers were entitled to access the lawful Internet content of their choice, to run applications and use services of their choice, connect their choice of legal devices that do not harm the network, and they are entitled to competition among network providers, application and service providers, and content providers.

2006: Congress attempts to pass the first of many network neutrality bills. In general, ISPs and hardware makers are against any legislation, while large Internet content providers and engineers are in favor, with eBay’s (s ebay) then-CEO Meg Whitman even sending out an email to eBay’s users asking them to contact their Congressmen in favor of network neutrality. The law didn’t pass.

2007: Another year, another net neutrality bill introduced in Congress. It failed. Meanwhile, users accused Comcast (s cmcsa) of blocking P2P files on its network — a problem in part because such files often include video that might be considered competitive with Comcast’s own pay TV service. The FCC investigates.

2008: Another net neutrality bill is introduced in Congress. The FCC found Comcast was blocking P2P files on its network as part of its network management practice. The FCC under Chairman Kevin Martin censured Comcast for blocking such files and ordered it to implement and file a new and non-discriminatory network management plan.

2009: Comcast sues the FCC in August, arguing the FCC is not the boss of it. In September, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski pulled the trigger on creating actual rules to cover network neutrality, with the surprise step of including wireless networks under the plan as well. The rules also added transparency as a principle to the original four.

2010: In April, a court says the FCC doesn’t have the authority to censure Comcast for violating the Open Internet Principles, creating a huge roadblock for Genachowski’s efforts to implement the net neutrality rules. Much floundering occurs throughout the summer with the FCC proposing a Third Way, with Google (s goog) and Verizon (s vz) hopping in bed with their own suggested policy framework and Congress attempting a bill.

Today, the FCC revamped its order to provide the three principles described above. The compromise is better than the original framework proposed earlier month, but it still has plenty of loopholes and rests on somewhat uncertain legal authority. That will ensure the FCC is arbitrating network neutrality disputes for years to come and likely fighting for that power in the courts.

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