Whether you’re heading to Amazon or your grandma’s cat grooming blog, every site and application on the internet is supposed to be delivered through the same pipes at the same speed.
But the Federal Communications Commission is poised to change all that. On Dec. 14 , the Republican-controlled agency is all but guaranteed to approve a proposal scrapping the current net neutrality rules, which require internet service providers to treat all data equally. The move would strip the government of its authority to regulate ISPs, handing those companies much greater control over how they deliver content.
Under the current rules, ISPs — companies like AT&T, Verizon and Comcast that control and maintain your broadband or wireless connections — are required to treat every site equally and give consumers the same access to all content. That means they can’t discriminate by blocking or slowing down the loading speeds of some sites or creating “fast lanes” for other sites that pay extra.
And in 2015, the FCC — a five-member bipartisan agency that monitors radio, television, phone, satellite and cable services — voted to enforce net neutrality, a protocol that’s always guided how the internet operates.
The vote reclassified wireless and broadband internet providers as “common carriers,” a designation that gave the FCC authority to regulate the industry like a public utility, in much the same way that other government agencies oversee companies that provide water and power.
But as with so many things under the Trump administration, that’s all subject to dramatic change. New FCC chairman Ajit Pai, a Trump appointee, is hell-bent on scrapping the nascent net neutrality regulations.
NOTE: The following NY Times video was produced in advance of the FCC’s 2015 decision but the same concepts apply today.
Although this all sounds like a big yawn fest, the decision is actually a pretty big deal, especially if you happen to use the internet for, well, just about anything (like reading this blog — which I hope loaded quickly).
Net neutrality advocates worry that the rule change will result in major changes to how the Internet operates in the U.S., with big online businesses paying for faster load times, squeezing out smaller players and disrupting service. Consumers could also have to pay a premium for bandwidth-heavy sites, like video streaming platforms.
The upcoming vote has set off a fight for control of the internet, in what consumer advocacy groups and other opponents are framing as a major curtailment of online free speech that will inevitably lead to less independent content and steeper rates of service. It also pits telecom titans like AT&T and Verizon, which have fought for years against such regulations, against internet giants like Google, Amazon and Facebook, which have all benefited tremendously from a free and open internet.
The new rules could go into effect as early as January, although court challenges are likely.
“Net neutrality is the idea that the internet should be free and open for everyone,” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg wrote, in advance of a “Day of Action” in July organized by tech companies to protest the FCC’s plan. “If a service provider can block you from seeing certain content or can make you pay extra for it, that hurts all of us and we should have rules against it.”
But Pai, who once served on the legal team at Verizon, argues that the current rules are unnecessary and a burdensome example of government overreach that prevent companies from expanding their broadband services and offering customers more service plans to choose from. ISPs, he adds, already adhered to the basic principles of net neutrality long before the government stepped in, and that worked just fine.
“The economics are simple here. The more heavily you regulate something, the less of it you’re going to get,” Pai said during a speech in April 2017.
“Under my proposal, the federal government will stop micromanaging the internet,” Pai added in a more recent statement. “Instead, the FCC would simply require internet service providers to be transparent about their practices so that consumers can buy the service plan that’s best for them.”
If Pai’s plan is approved, ISPs could create multiple tiers of internet service, in which customers would pay different rates based on the different types of online services they want to get. Some have pointed to internet companies in Portugal as a preview of what these changes might look like. Portuguese users pay a basic rate for traditional data use but have to pay more for add-ons like video streaming or messaging apps.
The proposal would also allow something called “paid prioritization,” a kind of deal where a company like Netflix could pay a service provider like Verizon for priority delivery and receive special treatment.
ISPs would technically be required to let consumers know if they block content or limit how fast certain sites load (known as bandwidth “throttling”), but it’s unclear how obvious those notifications would be.
Defenders of net neutrality argue that an open internet is essential for innovation and creativity, giving startups and small companies a fighting chance and ensuring that a wide diversity of web services remains available. Sites like Netflix, they argue, never would have succeeded without it, because the cable companies controlling the delivery pipes would have “throttled” it to avoid competition. The absence of net neutrality, they say, will inevitably create a pay-to-play outcome, and turn telecom companies into even more powerful gatekeepers of information and entertainment.
“We haven’t actually lived in a world where fully the ISPs could block access,” Denelle Dixon, chief legal and business officer at Mozilla, told NPR this summer when Pai’s plan began taking shape. “This is the world we need to imagine now.”