The Importance of Net Neutrality
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is holding its monthly meeting today regarding a controversial plan to repeal net neutrality protections which were passed during Former President Barack Obama’s presidential term. According to Fortune, it is likely that the rule change will pass on party-line voting 3-2 in favor of a net neutrality repeal. So what does net neutrality mean for us, the general public, when it comes to using the internet?
Public Knowledge, a non-profit Washington D.C.-based public interest group, defines net neutrality as the principle that individuals should be free to access all content and applications equally, regardless of the source, without Internet Service Providers (ISPs) discriminating against specific online services or websites. In layman’s terms, it is the idea that any internet service provider that connects their users to the internet, does not get to control what their users can do or view on the internet. The protection rules, approved by the FCC in 2015, were intended to keep the internet open and fair.
Think your internet is slow right now? With the repeal of net neutrality, the FCC would eliminate any rules preventing internet providers from blocking or slowing down access to online content. This means ISPs like Verizon and Comcast can prevent users from visiting some websites, provide slower speeds for apps and services like Netflix and Hulu, or even redirect users from one website to a competing one. Net neutrality rules prevent this by requiring ISPs to connect users to all lawful content on the internet equally, without giving preferences to certain sites or services.
In the absence of net neutrality, companies can buy priority access to ISP customers. Larger, wealthier companies like Google or Facebook can purchase ISPs to provide faster, more reliable access to their websites than their potential competitors. This could discourage innovative start-up services and online retail businesses that are unable to buy priority access from the ISPs. Also, if ISPs can charge online services to connect to consumers, consumers would ultimately bear these additional costs (for example, on their monthly Netflix bill or in the cost of products from a local online store).
Commissioner Ajit Pai was appointed as Chairman of the FCC by President Trump in January 2017. Chairman Pai also has a longstanding record of being against Title II classification, demonstrated by a speech in April 2017 where he announced a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking and discussed his plans to reverse the agency’s Title II classification of broadband service, as well as to undo some and potentially all the current net neutrality rules.
The main concern among net neutrality advocates is that the repeal would grant internet providers too much control over how online content is delivered. It may also make it difficult for the next generation of online services to compete, if they have cough up a pretty penny to be placed in a so-called “internet fast lane.”
Twitter, Reddit, Kickstarter and other user-based websites posted messages on their sites this week ahead of the vote in support of net neutrality. Protesters against the repeal have gathered in large groups in front of Verizon stores around the country. Some of the creators of the internet such as Vint Cerf, Tim Berners-Lee and Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak have also penned letters urging the FCC to cancel its vote to repeal net neutrality, describing the plan as “based on a flawed and factually inaccurate” understanding on how the internet works, according to The Guardian.
"The FCC has failed the public," Jessica Rosenworcel, one of two Democratic commissioners at the FCC, wrote on Twitter last week. "The public record it's using to justify the roll back of #NetNeutrality is a corrupted mess and the agency isn't doing anything about it. That's not right."
Pai hasn't been hesitant in responding to criticisms of his decision. According to the BBC, Pai suggested in a late speech last month that tech companies like Facebook and Google are a "bigger actual threat to an open internet" because they can censor content. He particularly accused Twitter of silencing conservatives by deleting or suspending their accounts.
If the FCC votes to repeal net neutrality today, the issue may end up heading to court very soon.
"Whenever we do anything big and major, people go to court," a senior FCC official said last month, according to Fortune. "I certainly would not rule that out."
There’s still a big question that is up in the air, does President Trump support net neutrality? With his penchant for hands-off regulations, it’s easy to assume that he doesn’t. Other than putting his support in Pai, Trump has not weighed in on the topic in a long time — at least he has not recently tweeted about it.