As the Internet exists now, ISPs are expected to provide Internet to consumers in a manner that does not disrupt, alter or outright block certain content providers from their service. This is referred to as net neutrality, or the Title II Order. It was established by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in 2015 in response to a variety of infringements by telecom companies who had been reported to engage deliberately in altering how consumers interact with the Internet.
For example, in 2011 Verizon blocked Google Wallet from Galaxy Nexus users, and in 2013 AT&T blocked video chatting apps like Google Hangouts. In both instances, these services claimed that Google had not produced an app that would work as designed on the phones. At the same time, both providers were working on their own app content that would have provided similar services to Google Wallet and Google Hangouts, which suggests that they blocked the competition.
As such, the FCC intervened and passed legislation that broadband is to be treated and enforced as a common carrier policy, which means it has the responsibility to treat all traffic neutrally because of its application in public life and economy. According to the FCC, “The rules specifically prohibit: Blocking, broadband providers may not block access to lawful content, applications, services or non-harmful devices. Throttling, broadband providers may not deliberately target some lawful internet traffic to be delivered to users more slowly than other traffic. Paid prioritization, broadband providers may not favor some internet traffic in exchange for consideration of any kind. Internet service providers are also banned from prioritizing content and services of their affiliates.”
Due to their influence, large ISPs have lobbied aggressively for deregulation in order to make room for innovation and investment in infrastructure.
Current FCC Chairman Ajit Pai stands against net neutrality.
“On the day that the ‘Title II Order’ was adopted, I said that I don’t know whether this plan will be vacated by a court, reversed by Congress, or overturned by a future Commission. But I do believe that its days are numbered. Today, I am more confident than ever that this prediction will come true,” Pai said.
Many lawmakers in Congress share this outlook. In related news, Republicans in the House and Senate voted to overturn Internet privacy rules in April, of this year. By the end of the year, ISPs will not need consumer permission to sell browsing info and app activity to third parties.
In regards to net neutrality, Republican officials have similar intentions. In May, the FCC voted 2-1 to begin work on dismantling the Title II Order, with an initiative called Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) or the Restoring Internet Freedom Act. After opening up discussion to the public, which closed Aug. 16, they are due for a decision about how to move forward.
There are many proponents for keeping the rules. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) cites this issue as a matter of First Amendment rights and an infringement on free speech.
“In this day and age, it is pretty much impossible to get through life without using the Internet — which is why it’s essential that our free speech rights are protected both on- and offline. After all, freedom of expression isn’t worth much if the forums where people actually make use of it are not themselves free,” the ACLU wrote.
Another proponent of net neutrality is Mignon Clyburn, an FCC commissioner and previous Chairwoman.
“[NPRM] deeply damages the ability of the FCC to be a champion of consumers and competition in the 21st century. It contains a hollow theory of trickle-down internet economics, suggesting that if we just remove enough regulations from your broadband provider, they will automatically improve your service, pass along discounts from those speculative savings, deploy more infrastructure with haste, and treat edge providers fairly,” Clyburn wrote in her dissent statement.
Even if a net neutrality overturn occurred, it would not be as if our favorite sources for online content like Netflix and Google would be largely affected. Netflix reports to CNN that “Weakening of U.S. net neutrality laws, should that occur, is unlikely to materially affect our domestic margins or service quality because we are now popular enough with consumers to keep our relationships with ISPs stable.”
“It’s the small businesses that are creating new services online and creating jobs that will be at risk because they may not have the financing or the power that a big conglomerate like Google or Netflix has to protect themselves.” Chris Lewis, VP of government at Public Knowledge said.
Net neutrality or no net neutrality, the Internet will remain indispensable among Americans no matter what they’re using it for. Collectively, our lives have been shaped by the presence of the Internet and as such, it will not be easily untangled. No matter how the FCC or Congress choose to respond, there will be consequences.
Photo courtesy of Save the Internet.