What Was Net Neutraility?
Net neutrality is a term used to describe a set of regulations that ensure all information flowing over the internet is treated equally. It means companies cannot block websites or offer certain companies faster loading speeds for money.
For example, internet services providers like Verizon and Comcast are currently prohibited from charging you more money to visit sites such as Netflix and Youtube. Verizon and Comcast are also prohibited from charging Netflix and YouTube to prioritize their traffic over other websites or services.
Until now, the internet mostly evolved under net neutrality principles. This meant that the internet was something of a meritocracy. The best idea would conceivably win out, even something like two guys starting a search engine out of a garage.
Without net neutrality, this could change, opening up the door to corporate domination of the internet.
What Happened Yesterday
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted on a party line vote today to rescind the net neutrality rules passed by the agency under President Obama. Two Republican-appointed commissioners joined agency Chairman Ajit Pai in a 3-2 vote to rescind the order and return to a standard that closely resembles the way the internet has been regulated for most of its existence. The vote was briefly delayed after security cleared the hearing room in the middle of Pai’s remarks in order to conduct a search.
The Obama era rules reclassified internet service from a Title I information service to a more heavily regulated Title II telecommunications service, essentially treating it as an early 20th century utility, like the phone system.
The Problem Deifined
The rules generally required internet service providers to treat most pieces of information that flowed over the internet equally, effectively setting up a non-discrimination standard for network management, content, and pricing. These requirements will no longer be in force.
Instead, the FCC will require ISPs to be transparent about their services, meaning that bandwidth throttling or other network management practices, which have sometimes been opaque to consumers, would have to be clearly labeled. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC), meanwhile, would be empowered to regulate anti-competitive or anti-consumer behavior, stepping in when internet companies make promises to provide a service that they do not keep.
As a result the federal government will stop managing the Internet leaving consumers at the mercy of their internet providers.
The regulatory rollback has been the subject of intense criticism from Democrats and activists, and even a small number of Republican lawmakers.
The shift in strategy is telling: Netflix favored net neutrality rules as a way to preserve a business advantage. As it has grown, it no longer needs that advantage. The debate over net neutrality was always, in part, a tug-of-war over regulatory advantage between tech industry giants. Today, the FCC took steps to stay out of the fight — and remain a neutral regulator over the net.
How This Can Effect Everyone Who Uses the Internet
Imagine having to pay an extra $10 per month so that Netflix streams fast enough to watch movies. Or that an app creator needs to pay AT&T millions of dollars so that new customers can actually access it on the company’s wireless network.
These accessibility issues are the kinds of things that net neutrality proponents theorize could happen without regulations. Once major companies are able to start negotiating with each other over how data flows across the internet, there’s no shortage of ways to pass higher costs on to consumers while scuttling innovation.
There is Hope
The FCC will face a volley of lawsuits as a result of their vdecesion yesterday. These lawsuits will argue that the FCC did not make this change on the merit of the facts and that the move itself is a violation of what the FCC is mandated to do.
Those legal challenges bear a decent chance of overturning the FCC’s actions, though it’s far from a sure thing.
Previous court rulings have essentially laid out why the FCC could and should regulate internet providers as done under the Obama administration. And courts have generally upheld those rules since then.
It’s a silver lining on an otherwise very dark cloud.