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Mass Media and the Internet in the United States

Regulation of the Internet in the United States

Efforts to regulate content on the Internet have largely focused on making Internet content safe for children. The issue of net neutrality has been more controversial.

Because of its vast scope and diffuse nature, the Internet has posed a new challenge in terms of government regulation. Opponents of regulation argue that placing limits on websites would stifle growth and infringe on free speech rights. Those in favor of regulation cite the presence of unfair practices and threatening or offensive content as reasons that some regulation is needed. The FCC has focused on regulations that provide protection for children relating to content and on giving fair and equal access to Internet service.

The Telecommunications Act of 1996 established some regulations for Internet service in the United States including significant protection for Internet service providers regarding liability for third-party content. It was the first time that the Internet was included in telecommunications regulations.

The Children's Internet Protection Act (2000) is a law that requires schools or libraries that receive Internet discounts through a federal program to have a certified Internet safety policy. The policy must include technology protection measures that block or filter Internet access to images. The images to be blocked include obscene images, child pornography, and other images that could be deemed harmful to minors. The policy must also ensure the safety of minors when they are using e-mail, chat rooms, or other types of electronic communications. It must also provide protection against unauthorized revealing of personal information regarding minors. Additionally, school Internet safety policies must include some method for monitoring the online activities of minors as well as educating minors about appropriate online behavior.

Net neutrality, the principle that Internet service providers should provide equal treatment to all Internet sites and services regardless of the amount of bandwidth they consume, has been a topic of debate at the FCC. Supporters of net neutrality argue that looser regulations will lead to an increase in prices and place Internet access out of reach for some. They also charge that abandoning net neutrality will lead to some content being more privileged than other content based on the ability of the provider to pay, meaning that companies or groups without financial resources will have trouble competing. Those opposed argue that a lighter regulatory regime will spur competition in the industry and be helpful for growth of the Internet. They also say that allowing different levels of service does not unfairly treat some providers, as their material is still available online. In 2015 the FCC implemented net neutrality rules requiring that Internet service providers may not intentionally block, charge prices differently, or slow down access to specific websites. Two years later, the FCC reversed net neutrality and moved back to much lighter regulations for Internet service providers.