Net neutrality has officially been repealed, but what does this mean for you as the average consumer? For now, the dust is still settling: the immediate impacts of this court decision will likely not be seen for some months to come. A “throttling” of services seems to be the most prominent concern for Net Neutrality advocates, and with good reason — the new line in the sand appears to benefit ISPs the most, which could wind up reshaping the landscape for small e-Commerce businesses and startups.
In just a few short decades, the internet has revolutionized the freedom of information in ways we never imagined possible. While some governments worldwide have attempted to block or hide information for political purposes, here in the U.S. the government and internet service providers (ISPs) that connect us to the internet have remained “hands off.”
That’s beginning to change, however, and ISPs are now doing more than just providing a connection. Some of them also own the services we use, including streaming video and audio services, news sites, and content providers. With this consolidation, free internet advocates worry that ISPs may eventually decide to prioritize their own service’s traffic, using their control of the ‘pipes’ to squeeze out competitors. And this is why the fight for net neutrality has become such a hot-button issue.
What is Net Neutrality?
Net neutrality refers to a concept that the Internet — regardless of how it’s delivered to the consumer — is a utility much like water, gas, or electricity. This is commonly referred to as “common carrier,” meaning the owners of the infrastructure itself cannot treat subscribers to a service different from others — in other words, everyone has a right to the same quality of service.
What Has the FCC Done About The Issue?
In theory, and thanks to an FCC decision in the early 2000s to classify broadband as an “information service,” an ISP could create multiple “lanes” of Internet traffic, and prioritize traffic flow on their own terms. The FCC throughout the 2000s waded into the argument several times, releasing sets of “principles” to urge ISPs to keep their networks open, but enforcement was repeatedly turned back by the courts because broadband wasn’t a “common carriage utility.”
In a nutshell, open internet advocates weren’t happy and demanded the FCC take action. The FCC’s first attempt at doing so was called the Open Internet Order, which in 2010 debuted a series on rules on the handling of broadband traffic.
It did the following:
- A prohibition on blocking or throttling of “legal” internet content
- A requirement that ISPs be “transparent” in how they manage their networks
- Mobile networks were given more leeway in managing their networks
What it didn’t do was prohibit ISPs from charging differently for so-called “fast lanes,” nor did it reclassify broadband. This opened up the laws to challenges once again, and Verizon successfully did so in 2014. FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler initially attempted to reinstate the rules as they were originally written, but after public outcry from net neutrality groups and pressure from the Obama Administration, he chose instead to change the classification of broadband to settle the issue once and for all in 2015.
Or at least we thought.
The Trump Administration’s Position on Net Neutrality
The election of Donald Trump and his emphasis on deregulation changed everything. Trump and his advisors took issue with the Obama-era net neutrality rules, saying the free market should guide how broadband is regulated. The nomination of Ajit Pai — a former Verizon lawyer — all but sealed net neutrality’s fate.
Pai (who has served on the FCC since 2011) was long an opponent of telecommunications regulation. He opposed the 2015 rule change, saying at the time it was the result of “hypothetical harms and hysterical prophecies of doom.” Now as chairman, he swiftly acted to repeal the 2010 Open Internet Order, successfully doing so in December 2017 on a 3-2 vote along party lines.
The rule took effect on June 11, 2018, reclassifying the internet as an “information service,” and doing away with regulations that prevented ISPs from throttling or blocking content, or prioritizing their own over a competitor’s. Without a doubt, the new rules benefit the ISPs the most, potentially at the expense of startups and consumers.
But what does this really mean?
How Could the Net Neutrality Repeal Affect YOU?
While there’s a great deal of disagreement regarding the ultimate impact of the repeal, we can at least speculate on a few likely changes to how Internet traffic will be handled.
- More ‘zero-rated’ content options. Data caps are still an issue that many Internet users must contend with. The idea of zero-rated content is that it doesn’t count against your monthly cap. Pai has said that this was one of his reasons for pushing the repeal.
- Potential rate hikes. There’s plenty of legal wrangling to come as opponents of the FCC decision make their way through the courts, but in the meantime, select services might end up costing more. As Gigi Sohn, a counselor to former FCC chairman Tom Wheeler put it, “those ‘fast lanes’ will put those who won’t or cannot pay in the slow lane, making the internet look a lot like cable TV.” Services not owned by ISPs might be forced to pay for bandwidth, and in turn, these increased costs will likely be passed onto consumers.
- It may depend on your state. Even if the U.S. Congress does not act to overturn the new rules, your local state might have its own policies keeping the concept of net neutrality in place. At least 30 state legislatures are currently considering or have passed net neutrality regulation, and several state governors have acted through executive order. The net effect may be to neuter Pai’s efforts since it would be difficult to handle traffic differently based on a patchwork of state laws, but it’s also not immediately clear if state governments would have the authority to do so — yet another question for the courts.
So what can you do? The best thing to do is to stay informed. Support and or join groups like Battle For The Net, which are actively lobbying Congress to make net neutrality the law of the land. Vote in the midterm elections, and make sure the candidates you support also support net neutrality. Most of all, spread the word — the more citizens that speak out against the repeal, the harder it becomes for net neutrality opponents to sway our members of Congress.
How do you think the net neutrality repeal will affect you? Are you worried? Optimistic? Please let us know in the comments.