What happened to the internet without net neutrality?

WONG: So both of us have some memories of the '90s internet. Barbara van Schewick is a professor at Stanford Law School, and she says in the early '90s, the idea of an open internet was the default. The internet service providers, even if they wanted to, could not really interfere with what people were doing online.

BARBARA VAN SCHEWICK: Data travels over the internet in packets, and when the internet first evolved, the internet service providers weren't able to look into these data packets.

WONG: But in the mid-'90s, the companies gained the technical capability to inspect these data packets.

VAN SCHEWICK: It allows the internet service providers to see, oh, Barbara is going to the website of The Wall Street Journal, or, you know, she is chatting with her friends. And so that then triggered this debate about should we through - now through rules ensure that internet service providers can't block websites or otherwise interfere with what we are doing online?

WOODS: There was debate but no enforceable rules around net neutrality until 2015. That's when the Federal Communications Commission adopted a new set of rules called the Open Internet Order.

WONG: This order gave the agency the legal authority to enforce bans on certain practices, like blocking content or favoring some kinds of content over others.

WOODS: And these rules just lasted for two years. In 2017, the Trump-era FCC repealed them. The FCC chairman at the time said a lighter touch on regulation would encourage more investment and competition in the broadband industry.

WONG: But advocates for net neutrality sounded the alarm. They warned that broadband providers could start charging people more to use certain applications, or some customers could access internet fast lanes while everyone else would be stuck with slower speeds.

WOODS: Barbara is a proponent of net neutrality, and in her view, what ended up happening after the 2017 repeal was subtle, maybe so subtle that most people didn't even catch on.

VAN SCHEWICK: Internet service providers have started to slowly exploit this lack of oversight and limit what people can do online. And so it's like the boiling frog where the water gets hotter and hotter, and the frog doesn't notice because change is so gradual.

WONG: Barbara points to two practices that she says crept in during the last few years. No. 1 is zero rating. This is when an internet service provider says certain kinds of content don't count towards a customer's data cap.

WOODS: For example, in 2016, AT&T introduced a program called Data Free TV. AT&T customers who were also DIRECTV customers could stream DIRECTV without that counting toward their monthly data usage. Now, AT&T owns DIRECTV.

WONG: So Barbara says the problem with this kind of program is that service providers can give certain applications - like, say, the ones they own - a competitive advantage.

VAN SCHEWICK: Hey, if you watch our video services, then we won't count them towards your data cap. But if you want to watch YouTube or Netflix or, you know, the Sunday services at your local church, they will burn through your data.

WOODS: AT&T suspended Data Free TV along with similar zero-rating programs in 2021. This was in response to a net neutrality law that the state of California enacted that year. AT&T said because the internet doesn't recognize state borders, it had to effectively apply the California law in other places, too. AT&T also said it's committed to the principles of an open internet. WONG: So that is zero rating. It's one practice that Barbara thinks has quietly turned up the heat on the boiling frog. The second practice she points to is called throttling. This is when an internet service provider intentionally slows down someone's speed.