As had been widely anticipated, on Thursday, December 14, the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted 3-2 to repeal the net neutrality regulations put in place by the agency two years ago. Why should you care? Because if critics are right, it may hinder your ability to access your favorite social media apps, play video games, or stream movies.
Introduced by President Obama in 2015, the net neutrality law required Internet Service Providers (ISPs) like AT&T and Comcast to treat all Internet data equally. This meant Comcast could not throttle the speed of competitors like Netflix to make its own streaming service more desirable. Large companies could also not gain an unfair advantage over smaller ones by paying additional fees to the service providers.
Thursday’s decision, what the FCC refers to as “Restoring Internet Freedom,” removes the restrictions and gives service providers the freedom to prioritize their own sites, apps, and streaming services. The FCC believes the repeal will shift control of the Internet from the government to the providers, allowing for more innovation and economic stimulation. Commission Chairman Ajit Pai, who had always maintained the government overstepped its boundaries when they introduced the law in 2015, says, “We are helping consumers and promoting competition. Broadband providers will have more incentive to build networks, especially in underserved areas.”
Critics worry the reversal will enable ISPs to regulate internet speeds and control what consumers can access. They could potentially also censor content they do not wish customers to see. The biggest concern, however, is that broadband providers will introduce tiered internet pricing. For example, Comcast customers may have to pay more for streaming services from Netflix or Amazon, rather than Hulu, which the ISP partially owns. This means that affluent families would be able to access more services and faster Internet services than those that cannot afford to pay the higher prices.
The service providers could also start charging companies a toll to make their content available. Should this happen, naysayers maintain it will provide an unfair advantage for larger companies like Google and Amazon and severely impact smaller businesses that cannot afford the extra cost.
Meanwhile, the ISPs are assuring consumers that they will not engage in any unfair practices. Also, the “Restoring Internet Freedom” act requires them to disclose if they do prioritize some sites or companies over others. This means their actions will be closely watched. Even if they do decide to discriminate, it will take some time before consumers feel any impact, given that the rules have to be approved by the White House Office of Management and Budget, which could take several months. The issue could also be tied up in courts for several years due to lawsuits filed by Attorney Generals from several states. Finally, there is the slim possibility that New York Senator Charles Schumer’s effort to get the repeal reversed under the Congressional Review Act will be approved. While no one knows what will happen next, one thing is for sure – the net neutrality debate is far from over, so stay tuned!
Resources: Newatlas.com, cnn.com, endgadget.com,wired.com