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The recent vote by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to repeal net neutrality regulations implemented during the Obama administration is a stark reminder of what’s at stake for America and our access to a free and open internet.
As president, Donald Trump appointed Ajit Pai to chairman of the FCC. Ajit Pai, a former Verizon lawyer, indicated that one of his top priorities would be dismantling net neutrality. He successfully achieved this goal on Thursday, December 14th, when the FCC voted 3-2 to repeal regulations that prohibited broadband providers, such as Verizon, AT&T and Comcast, from blocking websites or charging for higher quality service or access to certain content.
The FCC regulates communications, such as TV, satellite and cable, in the United States. The FCC is run by five Commissioners, which are appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate, and the President selects one of the Commissioners to serve as Chairperson. Commissioners serve five-year terms unless they are filling an unexpired term.
As part of the system, only three Commissioners can be from the same political party at any given time. This typically corresponds to the President’s party affiliation. To give an example, when Barack Obama was in office, the FCC was comprised of the following Commissioners: Tom Wheeler (Chairman)—Democrat, Mignon Clyburn—Democrat, Jessica Rosenworcel—Democrat, Michael O’Rielly—Republican and Ajit Pai—Republican.
Under Trump, the FCC now has the following Commissioners: Ajit Pai (Chairman)—Republican, Michael O’Rielly—Republican, Brendan Carr—Republican, Mignon Clyburn—Democrat, Jessica Rosenworcel—Democrat.
Net neutrality—or an open and free internet—is the idea that internet service providers (ISPs), such as Comcast, Verizon and AT&T, should give consumers access to all data equally, without discrimination.
So what does this mean in practice? When purchasing an internet package, there are certain expectations that consumers will be able to view the content of their choosing, whether it’s accessing Facebook, reading articles on various media sites, shopping online, streaming music, watching Netflix, or viewing videos on YouTube, Vimeo, etc.
Without net neutrality, ISPs have control to dictate how that content is accessed. This could include requiring internet companies to pay fees in order to reach their customers faster, requiring consumers to pay tiered pricing to view certain websites or use certain apps, or even blocking content that is not in the ISPs interest.
Here are a couple of examples of what may be in store when ISPs wield their power to control internet access:
In 2014, Comcast customers started noticing that they were getting terrible quality—or couldn’t even stream anything on Netflix—when they would use the service. Why was this happening? Well, Comcast wanted Netflix to pay an undisclosed fee to provide its users with “direct” access to the service.
When Netflix initially refused, Comcast started slowing their customers’ speeds when attempting to access the service, which made Netflix practically unusable. The problem became so bad that Netflix started losing customers. Netflix reluctantly agreed to pay Comcast—and voila, Comcast customers suddenly could use the service again without problems.
This particular example was highly cited by Netflix and others when companies came out in full force to argue why net neutrality regulations needed to be officially implemented to maintain a free and open internet. These regulations were eventually passed in 2015 to limit ISPs from leveraging their power over other companies and to protect consumers.
Even with net neutrality in place, Verizon started throttling internet speeds for certain websites and applications in July 2017 as part of a “video optimization test” designed to slow down streams from specific video sources.
Users started noticing that speeds were being capped at a certain rate for sites like Netflix and YouTube, which caused some users to witness excessive buffering, long load times and low-quality video. When brought to light, even though the speed throttling appeared to violate net neutrality rules, Verizon explained that they did not commit any wrongdoing because they complied with FCC’s exceptions.
The timing is certainly suspicious, and it almost feels like Verizon was conducting throttling experiments in anticipation of an impending net neutrality repeal under Ajit Pai, an ex-Verizon lawyer, and its Republican-majority Commissioners.
Considering the lengths that ISPs will go to conduct business that’s in their best interest, it’s a scary proposition that they are now in a position to have unfettered control over internet access.
With Thursday’s vote to repeal net neutrality, which required ISPs to treat all web traffic equally, ISPs now have an opportunity to experiment with new business models, including preferential access and tiered content pricing, free from government regulation.
According to Gigi Sohn, a net neutrality advocate who worked as an FCC aide in 2015, explained “You will see fast lanes and slow lanes. That will mean some of your websites are going to load slower, and some you like, mainly the smaller ones, may cease to exist because they can’t pay to get to customers faster.”
As Democratic FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel noted, “They will have the right to discriminate and favor the internet traffic of those companies with whom they have pay-for-play arrangements and the right to consign all others to a slow and bumpy road.”
ISPs point to an array of possible “pro-consumer” outcomes such as guaranteed fast speeds for health-related mobile apps or “family friendly” packages that block content not suitable for children.
As Ajit Pai himself states, “But then, in early 2015, the FCC jettisoned this successful, bipartisan approach to the Internet. On express orders from the previous White House, the FCC scrapped the tried-and-true, light touch regulation of the Internet and replaced it with heavy-handed micromanagement.”
But he conveniently leaves out that the ISPs have a history of unsavory practices, from blocking access to content to throttling speeds. It doesn’t appear that this “heavy-handed micromanagement” from net neutrality regulations adversely affected anyone but the ISPs that couldn’t wield their power for their own benefit.
He went on to say that “there was no problem to solve. The Internet wasn’t broken in 2015. We weren’t living in a digital dystopia. To the contrary, the Internet is perhaps the one thing in American society we can all agree has been a stunning success.”
A stunning success that would apparently be in America’s best interest to put in control of internet service providers. That does not inspire confidence.
Republican FCC Commissioner Mike O’Rielly responded to claims that the net neutrality repeal will destroy the internet by saying that they are a “scary bedtime story for the children of telecom geeks.”
But this may actually be the beginning of a nightmare that we all wish was just a dream. As Commissioner Mignon Clyburn stated, “There is a basic fallacy underlying the majority’s actions and rhetoric today: the assumption of what is best for broadband providers, is best for America. Breathless claims about unshackling broadband services from unnecessary regulation are only about ensuring that broadband providers have the keys to the internet.”
And Commissioner Rosenworcel reiterated, “As a result of today’s misguided action, our broadband providers will get extraordinary new power from this agency. They will have the power to block websites, throttle services, and censor online content.”
The fact is that the internet is a tool that is becoming more and more entrenched in our everyday lives, and any actions that provide more power and control to ISPs is a danger to consumers. But hey, take if from Ajit, and his “hilarious” PSA about how we can still do all of the “important” things on the internet even after net neutrality is demolished.
I’m sure that with this new power, the ISPs will use it for the good of the consumer and not abuse their control to make consumers lives more difficult, just like with cable…
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