When John Oliver told HBO viewers to flood the Federal Communications Commission’s comment box in June by weighing in on the net neutrality debate, tens of thousands sent messages to the independent regulatory agency. While that may have contributed to more Americans clamoring to for the FCC to keep the internet as it is, many voters still struggle to define what’s at stake.
A recent Morning Consult poll shows that a plurality, or 39 percent, of registered voters don’t know or have no opinion on what defines net neutrality. A definition pertaining to how internet service providers are regulated was the most popular response, at 26 percent, among voters who chose one of four descriptions.
Public awareness of the regulatory issue gained some momentum last month when President Barack Obama said the FCC should regulate ISPs as utility companies, essentially treating them like telephone companies. The agency’s authority for that kind of oversight stems from a provision in the Telecommunications Act from the 1930s, when Congress decided to regulate phone companies as “common carriers.”
The FCC is expected to make its announcement on net neutrality sometime next year.
When only considering responses from voters who selected one of four possible definitions, 65 percent said net neutrality is about either regulation practices or how connection speeds should work. Still, 27 percent said the debate revolves around maintaining freedom of speech online. Industry experts say that clamping down on such freedoms is unlikely since doing so would prompt severe public backlash from users and content providers.
Morning Consult surveyed 1,749 registered voters from Dec. 6 through Dec. 9. The margin of error is plus or minus 2.3 percentage points.
Tim Wu, a Columbia University media law professor, coined the term “network neutrality” in 2003. He described it as the idea that all bits of data online are not discriminated against over broadband, thus ensuring users can access all content online. That means an ISP such as Comcast or Verizon should not block a specific website or slow a user’s service to access specific content.