The Death of Net Neutrality… Not Yet
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in December 2017 voted to undo the net neutrality rules put into place in 2015. The principle behind net neutrality is that Internet Service Providers (ISPs), like Verizon, AT&T and Comcast, treat all content equally. Providers are barred from deliberately speeding up or slowing down traffic from specific websites, and from putting forth their own content at an advantage over rivals. In practical terms, it means that the consumer can load every website, app, video, etc., equally, regardless of where the content is hosted. An ISP may not charge more for sites that stream movies or promote a specific agenda. It basically levels the playing field.
In 2015 the FCC under the Obama administration voted to classify consumer broadband service as a public utility under Title II Order of the 1934 Communications Act. Under that law, the FCC adopted no-blocking, no-throttling and no-paid-prioritization rules. The measure controls how companies provide services to consumers. Under this order, the Internet is deemed a common carrier or public utility, so ISPs are regulated. Other public utilities include electricity and phone service companies.
Supporters, Opponents of Net Neutrality Rules
The FCC’s decision to overturn these protections has been championed by the telecom industry, but widely criticized by technology companies and consumer advocacy groups. Supporters of Title II classification say it keeps the Internet open and accessible to anyone, regardless of socioeconomic status. Without the current regulations, they say ISPs could charge more for access to specific sites, censor content and ultimately reshape Americans’ on-line experiences.
Sheryl Sandberg, COO, Facebook, took to social media after the FCC’s repeal saying that, “An open Internet is critical for new ideas and economic opportunity – and Internet providers shouldn't be able to decide what people can see online or charge more for certain websites. We’re ready to work with members of Congress and others to help make the Internet free and open for everyone.”
“Net neutrality is foundational to competitive, free enterprise, entrepreneurial market entry," Lauren Culbertson, Twitter's public policy manager, wrote in a Twitter blog post. "Anyone with a great idea, a unique perspective to share, and a compelling vision can get in the game."
Netflix tweeted from the company's official account to say the company “stands with innovators, large and small, to oppose the misguided FCC order.”
Critics of the net neutrality regulations say that these rules have been unnecessary and hamper job creation and free market competition. “The Internet wasn’t broken in 2015. We were not living in some digital dystopia,” FCC chairman Ajit Pai stated after the vote to undo the regulations. “The main problem consumers have with the Internet is not and has never been that their ISP is blocking access to content. It's been that they don't have access at all. We are helping consumers and promoting competition. Broadband providers will have more incentive to build networks, especially to underserved areas.”
The Battle for the Net Is Far from Over
The fight for net neutrality shifted to Congress, where pro-network neutrality members are pressing to use something known as the Congressional Review Act (CRA) to undo the FCC’s action. So far, Senate Democrats led by Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) have amassed 40 co-sponsors for the congressional action, passing the 30-member threshold required to use the CRA to overturn the FCC vote. This now paves the way for a full Senate vote with the potential of forcing each senator to take a position on the FCC’s rollback of the net neutrality rules. They have until late April before some small aspects of the repeal kick in, but it remains unclear when the major changes to net neutrality would become effective, if efforts to stop the repeal fail. The odds, however, for reversal are long. Even if the measure to undo the FCC’s action is passed in the Senate, it has to pass the House and then be signed by President Trump, who supported the FCC’s bid to undo the net neutrality rules.
States Getting in on the Action to Preserve Net Neutrality
In the meantime, attorneys general from 20 states are suing to stop the repeal and lawmakers in New York, Washington, Massachusetts, and California have proposed bills to enforce the principles of net neutrality. “We won't let the Trump-led FCC dismantle our right to a free and open Internet,” Senator Scott Wiener, a Democrat representing San Francisco, said in a statement introducing one of the two bills in the California legislature. “We won't let them create a system where Internet providers can favor websites and services based on who pays more money.”
The Internet Association, a trade group representing Internet companies like Facebook, Google, and Amazon, according to CNN, said it intended to join the upcoming legal fight to preserve net neutrality.
Even with the FCC’s action in December, it will take some time before we see any changes in how we experience the Internet. Experts believe that providers will not make any immediate changes (in fact, they promised not to block or throttle content), partly because of the legal challenges to the FCC's action that will continue to keep this issue – and them – in the spotlight. But this could change if the issue isn’t reversed. Internet giants like AT&T and Verizon can eventually give priority to the movies, TV shows and other videos or music they provide to viewers, hurting rivals such as Amazon and YouTube or startups yet to be established.
Stellar is keeping a close eye on this issue, supporting efforts to repeal the FCC’s decision to undo net neutrality regulation. As part of the digital community, we don’t want to see the Internet, one of the most powerful inventions of our time, handed over to a handful of billion-dollar companies to set pricing and prioritize content.