Update: On December 14, the FCC voted 3-2 to overturn the 2015 net neutrality rules.
On November 21, Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Ajit Pai announced that the agency will vote December 14 on whether to strike down 2015’s landmark net neutrality rules. If the FCC leadership committee’s Republicans votes to overturn the rules, as expected, telecommunication companies will be allowed to decide what users can access on the internet — and how much they will have to pay.
The rules adopted in 2015 re-categorized internet service providers (ISPs) such as Comcast, AT&T and Verizon from “information services” — a classification applied to social network sites, search engines and blogs — to “telecommunication services.” This re-categorization, allowed the FCC to regulate ISPs as “common carriers,” traditionally utility or infrastructure companies that provide a general service rather than specialized packages. As a result of this classification, under Title II of the 1934 Communications Act, the net neutrality rules made it illegal for ISPs to offer internet packages that either exclude or prioritize particular content providers — keeping the internet free and open.
Now, the FCC is poised to roll back these measures and meet the demands of telecommunication lobbyists working for companies like AT&T and Comcast who claim that the 2015 rules have suppressed broadband network investment. However, when these companies have been legally obligated to report to their investors, their numbers and statements tell a very different story.
Despite the claims that investment has been harmed by the reclassification of ISPs as common carriers — which the FCC has cited as a primary reason for eliminating the net neutrality rules — a recent report from the internet freedom advocacy group Free Press found that, “not a single publicly traded U.S. ISP ever told its investors (or the SEC) that Title II negatively impacted its own investments specifically.”
Chairman Pai, for his part, has framed his proposed rollback as simply a “return to the bipartisan light touch framework that governed the internet, starting in the Clinton administration,” as opposed to “the Obama administration’s heavy-handed regulations.”
But while Chairman Pai may consider these regulations “heavy-handed,” in fact they were put in place to stamp out abuses.
Before broadband, internet users obtained access through dial-up, which was classified as a telecommunication service. As broadband became more common throughout the 2000s, the FCC was regularly battling in court with ISPs. These companies were taking advantage of their erroneous categorization as an information service, engaging in manipulative practices such as extorting content providers, slowing down activity they deemed inappropriate and blocking user access to competitors’ websites. Such practices were largely ended with the FCC’s 2015 rules.
So, why are ISPs really pushing the FCC to end net neutrality? The answer is simple: there’s a lot of money to be made if you’re in control of what people see online — just ask Google and Facebook.
While it’s impossible to tell just how much ISPs stand to gain financially from the change, the millions of dollars they’ve spent campaigning against net neutrality indicate that they expect to make a windfall. What is certain is that much of the costs will be borne by internet users.
The question of whether internet access should be free or restricted has implications beyond users’ bank accounts, however. Repealing net neutrality would essentially convert the experience of using the internet — now open and interactive — into that of television: closed, passive and bureaucratic. Big websites would become the digital equivalent of the big cable networks.
Right now, ISPs are only able to offer internet access. If Chairman Pai’s proposal is implemented, however, they’ll be able to offer specialized packages in content, speed and data management.
That might sound relatively innocuous, but it isn’t. It means ISPs would be able to offer a news package that excludes particular news websites (such as InTheseTimes.com). Or, even without following the packaging model, it means they can slow down, or block, websites they prefer their customers don’t visit.
Prior to the 2015 rules, ISPs were already doing the latter. For instance, Comcast slowed down peer-to-peer file sharing of what it believed was copyrighted material, and Verizon blocked its customers from using the “wallet” apps of its competitors.
The net neutrality battle has also pitted ISPs against big data-users such as Google, Netflix and Spotify — companies that see an overturn of the 2015 rules as a threat to their bottom lines.
While Google has boasted about the importance of an “open internet,” what the company’s executives are really concerned about is the extortionary fees ISPs could charge them if the FCC’s proposal goes through. That’s why Google lobbied for the Title II regulations on ISPs, and why the company has been rushing expansion of its own internet service — Google Fiber — which ISPs have tried using local governments to block.
These companies are of course looking out for their investors and stockholders, not average internet users. But this doesn’t change the fact that if net neutrality is overturned, the internet will become more expensive and less free for everyone.
The internet already has enough gatekeepers — ISPs don’t need to be added to the list. Web hosts can already suspend website domains. Facebook and Google already decide not only what people see online, but in what context they see it. The digital economy doesn’t need more censorship, inequality and surveillance. There’s plenty of that already.