Net neutrality repeal means your internet may never be the same
FCC Chairman Ajit Pai wants the US government to stop "micromanaging the internet."
On Tuesday he introduced a proposal to repeal the controversial 2015 net neutrality rules that prevented broadband companies from blocking or slowing down access to websites or services.
While many people agree with the basic principles of net neutrality, these specific rules have been a lightning rod for controversy. That's because in order to get the rules to hold up in court, the FCC reclassified broadband networks so that they fell under the same strict regulations that govern telephone networks.
Pai has called the Obama-era rules "heavy-handed" and "a mistake," and he argues that they've deterred innovation and depressed investment in building and expanding broadband networks. To set things right, he says, he's taking the FCC back a "light touch" approach to regulation.
What is net neutrality again?
Net neutrality is the principle that all traffic on the internet should be treated equally, regardless of whether you're checking Facebook, posting pictures to Instagram or streaming movies from Netflix or Amazon. It also means that companies like AT&T, which is trying to buy Time Warner, or Comcast, which owns NBC Universal, can't favor their own content over a competitor's content.
So what just happened?
Pai, who became FCC chairman after President Trump took office, on Tuesday published a proposal to eliminate the current net neutrality regulations, which prohibit broadband providers from blocking or slowing down traffic and ban them from offering so-called fast lanes to companies willing to pay extra to reach consumers more quickly than competitors.
But the proposal's most significant change is to strip the FCC of its authority to regulate broadband and instead shift that responsibility to the Federal Trade Commission. Under the 2015 rules, the FCC reclassified broadband as a utility, which gave it the authority to regulate broadband infrastructure much as it did the old telephone network. The proposal would strip away that classification.
What's it all mean for me?
This is a huge change in policy at the FCC and it could affect how you experience the internet. Whether that experience is changed for the better or for the worse depends on whom you believe.
Pai and many other Republicans say freeing up broadband providers from onerous and outdated regulation will let them invest more in their networks. They're hopeful this will lead to more expansion in rural and hard-to-service areas of the country, as well as faster speed service throughout the US. The agency's argument for repealing the rules is that investment started to decline in 2015 after the rules were adopted.
But Democrats like Sen. Brian Schatz of Hawaii, consumer advocacy groups, civil rights organizations and technology companies like Google and Mozilla say that repealing the 2015 rules and stripping the FCC of its authority will lead to broadband companies controlling more of your internet experience.
As companies like AT&T, Verizon and Comcast acquire more online content like video, they could give their own services priority on their networks, squeezing out competitors and limiting what you could access. This might mean fewer startups get a shot at becoming the next Facebook, Netflix or YouTube. Ultimately, it could lead to your internet experience looking more like cable TV, where all the content is curated by your provider.
The FCC is scheduled to vote on the proposal at its Dec. 14 meeting. And since Republicans lead the agency with 3 votes to 2, it will easily pass.
But that's not the end of the fight. Net neutrality supporters have vowed to file lawsuits in defense of net neutrality. Once the order to repeal the rules is published in the federal registry, the lawsuits will likely be filed. Supporters say they feel good about their chances in court, given that a federal appeals court last year upheld the 2015 rules. But as with any legal fight, the outcome is never certain until the judges make their ruling.
Is there anything I can do?
At this point, the repeal is going to happen. But net neutrality supporters say it's important to reach out to your elected officials to tell them you're concerned and to urge them to pass bipartisan legislation. Schatz also said that anybody who cares about this issue, including the thousands of people who filed comments to the FCC urging protection for the net neutrality rules, need to turn that concern into action. Midterm elections for Congress are coming up in 2018, and Schatz wants to see tech-savvy young people making the internet a campaign issue.