ISP Regulations – Get the Facts

The simplest way to think about ISPs is as internet gatekeepers. If you want access to the internet, you have to go to ISPs and purchase a subscription package.

ISPs decide the speed at which you experience the web and the amount of money you have to pay to access it. Additionally, they decide what you can download and how much you can download. Finally, ISPs can punish you for things online that they deem illegal or inappropriate. All of this is why you always hear ISPs discussed when the topic of net neutrality comes up.

The Three Major ISPs

If we’re talking about the most popular ISPs in the country right now there’s no doubt that those three are AT&T, Comcast Xfinity and Time Warner Cable. Other popular ISPs include Verizon and Charter. Whatever the actual order of popularity is, the thing you need to keep in mind is that you can’t go wrong with any of these options.

An image featuring a person holding out his hand with multiple icons above representing an internet service provider

AT&T is popular because of the comprehensiveness of its packages. With a single subscription, you can get access to not just a fast internet connection but also phone and digital TV service.

Comcast is also great because of its coverage area as it serves customers in 39 states. Many online publications have ranked Comcast as one of the fastest internet service providers in the country.

Time Warner Cable has a network of millions of users. Some of their packages come with free security apps and specific public hotspots which makes them very competitive in the internet service provider market.

What Does an ISP Do?

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To answer the question of what an internet service provider does, you only have to look at the term “internet service provider.” Such services provide users with internet access in return for a fee from the user.

Think of it this way: if there were no ISPs, there would be no internet. And with no internet access, you’re basically cut off from the modern world. In fact, without the internet, you wouldn’t be reading this article right now. This exclusivity is why ISPs are occasionally able to call net neutrality into question.

ISPs offer all the sub-services that include everything related to networking, telecommunications and routing infrastructure. They also perform all the maintenance tasks which ensure internet access for users at all times.

Modern internet service providers can also offer additional services such as email, domain name registration and web hosting.

ISPs operate in tiers. Tier 1 internet service providers have complete and unmitigated access to nearly every network on the internet. Tier 1 internet service providers get this access via network peering agreements. Hence, they don’t have to pay anything to be a part of such a network.

You can think of Tier 1 ISPs as the global superhighway. The top Tier 1 internet service provider in the country is currently Verizon. In other countries, they are Vodacom, British Telecommunications and Deutsche Telekom.

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Tier 1 internet service providers are different from other internet service providers in the sense that they can sell internet access to normal internet service providers. More specifically, Tier 1 ISPs sell network access to other ISPs which are known as Tier 2 internet service providers.

Tier 2 ISPs can then sell the internet access they’ve already paid for to at-home users, businesses or any other type of organization. Tier 1 ISPs can also sell directly to customers.

In addition to Tier 1 and Tier 2 internet service providers, there’s the Tier 3 internet service provider. Tier 3 internet service providers buy network bandwidth from a Tier 2 internet service provider and then sell it to end-users.

You should also know that your internet traffic typically goes through a complex web of services to reach its destination. Your home modem is responsible for routing your traffic to a Tier 3 internet service provider. Then your traffic may move to a Tier 2 internet service provider’s network and then finally end in a Tier 1 internet service provider network. After that, it may go through another set of internet service providers to reach its destination.

Does the FCC Regulate the Internet?

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It depends on what you mean by “regulate.” Of course, the FCC can’t really regulate what gets posted on the internet.

However, the NTIA (National Telecommunications and Information Administration) made a request to the FCC in the early part of 2020 to explain Section 230.

This is important:

You might already know that Section 230 forms the base of internet law in the U.S. It gives sites like Twitter and Facebook near immunity from any kind of liability regarding the content users post on their platforms. Not only that, but Section 230 also protects these platforms when they make decisions regarding which content to delete and which to keep.

Back when Twitter suppressed controversial posts about President Biden, Tom Johnson, the then-FCC General Counsel, concluded that the FCC had the authority to legally interpret Section 230. Following that, the then-FCC Chairman Ajit Pai announced that he intended to use the FCC to clarify the meaning of Section 230. That’s the same Ajit Pai who put net neutrality in peril a few years ago.

Does That Mean the FCC Can Regulate the Internet?

Partially, yes. Non-telecom entities would probably not welcome the fact that the FCC has the legal authority to interpret Section 230 and the internet itself.

The Supreme Court, in AT&T vs. Iowa Utilities Board, held that on the basis of Section 201(b) the FCC had rule-making authority in the implementation of the Communications Act of 1934. An amendment to the Communications Act of 1934 saw Section 230 getting passed. The FCC can use that to interpret Section 230‘s provisions.

How Does an ISP Get the Internet?

Your ISP probably gets it from the Tier 1 internet service provider we talked about before. As mentioned before as well, Tier 1 internet service providers can reach all other networks by paying settlements or buying IP transit passes. Tier 1 internet service providers are able to peer with other Tier 1 broadband internet access service providers on a transit-free network.

What Is Peering?

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We’ve already discussed that your internet traffic, on average, has to move through two different Tier 1 networks to reach its final destination. The networks themselves use peering arrangements as bridges.

Each network agrees to route a certain amount of internet traffic for another network using its own network. Most of the time, such arrangements are free.

However, if a network receives or sends too much data then it may have to pay up.

Companies that have the resources can form their own peering arrangements. A prime example is Netflix which has its own network and peering infrastructure arrangement with a number of Tier 1 networks. As a result, it’s able to offer a cheaper and faster streaming experience to users who’ve signed up for any popular ISP in the U.S. This is the type of thing that net neutrality is designed to avoid.

Is It Legal for ISPs To Monitor Traffic?

Depending on where you live, your ISP may have the legal authority to monitor traffic. In countries such as the U.K. and the U.S., internet service providers are sometimes required by law to monitor traffic. This is especially true with the rise of cyberattacks and international terrorism.


You also have to understand that broadband internet access service providers’ main business model is to monitor internet traffic. And since there aren’t any laws explicitly prohibiting it, why wouldn’t ISPs monitor internet traffic?

Will Your ISP Protect Your Privacy?

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There’s no easy way to answer this question as there are many variables to take into account. First of all, it depends on the laws of your country. Whether your government wants your internet service provider to protect your privacy or not is ultimately going to decide the outcome. If the government doesn’t have consumer privacy protection laws, then you can bet that your internet service provider isn’t going to protect your privacy or your personal information.

If you’re a privacy-conscious online user then you should just assume that your internet service provider isn’t protecting your privacy or personal information. If that’s the case, you need to take the steps necessary to safeguard it.

What’s the Law on Internet Privacy?

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Currently, the U.S. doesn’t have a single all-encompassing law that can regulate online privacy. However, it does have a patchwork that consists of state and federal laws.

The FTC Act of 1914 regulated deceptive and unfair practices and can be used by the FTC to bring companies that violate user privacy to court. If an internet service provider fails to protect user’s personal information sufficiently and doesn’t conform to its own advertised privacy policies then it can get into trouble with the law.

There’s also the ECPA (Electronic Communications Privacy Act) of 1986 which safeguards specific electronic, oral and wire communications from unauthorized use, access, interception and disclosure.

Additionally, there’s the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act of 1986 which marks activities such as accessing a computer without the proper authorization to collect certain personally identifiable information or to defraud or steal any valuable item or transfer items that may be harmful.

An image featuring a laptop that says privacy policy on it

After that, we have the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act of 1998. This law, in certain circumstances, forces broadband internet access service providers and websites to get parental consent before they collect personally identifiable information from people aged 13 and under. Websites also have to upload their privacy policy on a separate page and collect personal information on a need-only basis. Moreover, they’re also required to set up security measures to safeguard customer personal information.

The CAN-SPAM Act of 2003 regulates unsolicited commercial email messages, misleading message subjects and inaccurate header information. This law requires the sender of the message to disclose specific information and offers criminal and/or civil penalties for entities that violate these requirements.

To take care of internet privacy while people are engaged in financial transactions, there’s the Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act of 2003 and the Financial Services Modernization Act of 1999. These regulate how financial institutions collect, disclose and use personally identifiable information. Financial institutions also have to share information regarding how long they hold customers’ personal information, their security program and customer notices.

Can a Broadband Internet Access Service See What Sites You Visit?

Yes. And considering the amount of money they can make by selling your data (assuming there are no laws governing personally identifiable information in your country), they probably are. Broadband internet access service providers, just like any other business, have to generate more revenue each year and plenty of them have started to sell personally identifiable information to hit their targets.

Many of them are engaged in the act of disclosing, selling, or permitting access to customer personal information.

What Regulations Do ISPs Have To Abide By?

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Generally speaking, ISPs have to deal with regulations regarding the collection and storage of personal information. The law also requires them to seek permission from consumers before they start collecting or selling personally identifiable information.

However, the actual regulation that an ISP may have to abide by will depend on where you live.

Even then, the actual number of regulations and laws that broadband internet access service providers have to abide by is bewildering. Here’s a list of the general set of regulations:

  • Broadband Speed Code of Practice
  • Advertising Standards Authority Guidelines
  • Migration Rules (or provider switching).
  • Price Rises during the contract
  • Voluntary Open Internet Code of Practice
  • Statutory rights and general consumer laws
  • Automatic compensation in case of loss of service
  • End of Contract Notification

Then there are other regulations regarding contract length, value-added tax, ISPs postal address, the right to exit and further contract information. Of course, the ISP covering your location may not have to abide by all of these regulations.


Just keep in mind that many ISPs actively engage in the disclosing, selling, or permitting of access to your personal information despite these regulations.

Conclusion: ISPs and Your Personal Information

Internet service providers have to abide by a ton of regulations not just on the business side but on the end-user side as well. They have to protect and responsibly collect customer personal information among many other things.

Should there be more ISP regulation? Should ISPs compensate users when their service doesn’t work to the level mentioned in the contract or when their personal information is exposed?

Feel free to use the comments section below to share your views with us.

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