How things can change in under two years. On Make Tech Easier, we previously wrote about the US Court of Appeal’s landmark decision in favor of net neutrality, ensuring that all-powerful Internet service providers in the US continued to be regulated so that they couldn’t prioritize certain content, or even dictate what content gets shown and what doesn’t.
In principle, net neutrality offered a free and open internet to consumers, where no matter your ISP, you had access to all the sweeping joys of the Internet at the same speed (from the server side) as everyone else.
But with a new government administration and new chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), Ajit Pai, all of that has been overturned. In mid-November the FCC proposed to repeal net neutrality rules, and on December 14 it became official, as the FCC repealed net neutrality rules by a vote of 3 to 2.
What Is Net Neutrality?
Former Senator Ted Stevens may have been mocked for calling the Internet “a series of tubes,” but that is a decent way to visualize it. You have a pipeline to the Internet, and you get data through that pipeline to watch movies, play games, or use social media.
But the important thing when it comes to net neutrality is that all websites are treated the same by ISPs. If I want to read Fox News or CNN or ABC, the ISP has to grant me access to all of them and load them at the same rate (providing something is not wrong with the websites). Without net neutrality, broadband providers can have deals with various content providers to push their content and deliver it faster for the right price, at the expense of competitors.
It will become a “multi-lane” Internet, with faster and slower lanes dictated by money.
Arguments for Net Neutrality
ISPs are not particularly fond of net neutrality. Take Comcast, the biggest ISP in the United States. Comcast merged with NBC, and the two are in competition with Netflix as content providers. So without net neutrality, Comcast could slow the delivery of a Netflix show because it does not want to prioritize a rival.
In fact, Comcast could shut out Netflix altogether. It would be possible for Comcast to offer an agreement to consumers stating that they could only go to certain websites and that consumers would have to pay an additional fee for going to some other website. It would be comparable to how cable providers can restrict you from certain channels and charge more if you want to watch premium channels like HBO.
While some like to condemn net neutrality as an example of the Obama administration’s over-regulatory policies, the concept dates all the way back to the Communications Act of 1934 when the FCC was created to counter the monopolization of phone services at the time. Its mission statement was thus:
“Make available so far as possible, to all the people of the United States, without discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, or sex, rapid, efficient, Nationwide, and world-wide wire and radio communication services with adequate facilities at reasonable charges.”
The crucial point there is “without discrimination.” Getting rid of net neutrality has opened the door for network providers to do just that – discriminate against websites, business and content creators based on monetary factors. Small businesses are likely to suffer, as they can get pushed into the Internet “slow lanes” by companies prepared to cough up the cash. Even big companies like Netflix, Amazon and Facebook have spoken out against the decision to repeal it.
Internet service providers, meanwhile, welcome the change.
Arguments Against Net Neutrality
FCC Chairman Ajit Pai argues that net neutrality is indicative of cumbersome government interventionism, which is denying ISPs the freedom to innovate their networks and offer more bespoke packages to their customers (at both higher and lower price points than the limited options currently available). In a statement Pai said “under my proposal, the federal government will stop micromanaging the Internet.”
Opponents of net neutrality argue that net neutrality stifles innovation. As libertarian blog Reason sees it, “net neutrality” is actually government regulation of Internet providers which prevents them or other smaller Internet services from finding new and better methods to provide the Internet to everyone.
How Will this Affect You?
The simple answer is that we really don’t know yet, but any time the word “innovation” is used so vaguely in a debate, we should be skeptical. Without net neutrality, the Internet (in the US) will be in the hands of US broadband operators who are the epitome of Big Business and will likely look to take advantage of this situation for financial gain.
The worst-case scenario is that you may have to pay premiums for visiting certain websites (particularly video-streaming services that you’re probably already paying for), and you may find that access to certain sites is being throttled while others flourish. You’ll probably see plenty more Internet packages per provider, some with more tantalizing prices than others, but expect there to be caveats to these regarding what kind of content they prioritize. In other words, reading the small print will be more important than ever.
This is far from the end of the story, as politicians, companies and entire states are threatening to appeal the decision and even file lawsuits (most notably the Internet Association, which represents Google, Facebook and other major tech forms). As it stands, the repeal is likely to come into effect in early 2018, but you should expect a few more twists in this saga before that happens, and the legal battle is likely to continue well after the repeal itself.
Stay tuned …