The Federal Communications Commission voted and approved the Restoring Internet Freedom Act, which repeals the net neutrality rules. These rules were in practice since 2015. By most reasonable accounts, this decision is a very bad thing to happen to one of the essential necessity of the time. That vote is over and the act passed. Now the question is what will happen next. Will the internet be ruined from today? The short answer is no, but what is coming next is important.
Net neutrality classifies the internet as a utility to which people have equal and open access. A huge concern without it is the creation of different ‘lanes’ in which the content providers pay to travel. If you need faster delivery of your services, you will have to pay more. So, if Netflix wants to deliver all the video data to its customers in super high resolution, it will have to pay inflated rates to the service providers. The cost will then be passed to the customers as well.
Small internet companies will face the price rise as well. So even if your business has nothing to do with the internet, you will still feel the price increase. As a result, cloud backup, file sharing, team applications and many other essential services will require more cash from customers.
We are still not living in the tiered service hellscape, even though FCC voted to repeal the net neutrality protections. Congress has 60 days to review and repeal the decision. This requires a Resolution of Disapproval. There are forms online that the public can use to show their disapproval. One of the primary arguments for overturning the decision is the complete lack of public hearings before the FCC hearing occurred. The members openly wrote off many of those opinions in their comments about the issue because of the “colorful language” or their simple nature.
“I think this thing is doomed in court”, says Columbia Law School professor Tim Wu, who was credited with the coining phrase “network neutrality” back in 2002. “They went too far.”
Even though the vote happened just hours ago, the lawsuits to overturn the repeal are already in motion. Several states, including California and Washington, are already working on legal action that could overturn, or at least delay the process. This repeal happened on an accelerated timeline compared to other decisions of this kind. The lack of public hearings and the nature of the process work against the legitimacy of the FCC decision.
There are also advocacy groups considering lawsuits to try and stop the repeal. One of the largest of which is the Internet Association. It includes internet heavy hitters like Alphabet (Google’s Parent Company), Netflix, Facebook, and Microsoft. While Netflix and Facebook have been outspoken in support of net neutrality in the past, the companies were quiet in the direct run-up to the vote itself.
Free Press, a group that has been very vocal about the need of net neutrality since the beginning, is also preparing legal action to fight the repeal. They will act against it on the grounds that the vote was capricious or careless, an argument supported by the fact that even some Republican members of Congress requested to delay the vote until a more informed decision could be made. If states get out in front of the repeal from a legal standpoint, then there are chances that it can be saved. However, if the repeal passes, states are prohibited from creating net neutrality rules. The justification is that wireless and cable networks are not bound by state borders, so the rules should not either be bound by the borders as well. In reality, it seems more like an effort to prevent states from standing in the way of industry.
Initially, the users are likely to not notice a change at all. “I think the cable and phone companies are going to slow,” says Wu. “Don’t be surprised if in two or three years your broadband bill is bigger and the internet seems increasingly controlled by a few big companies.” Prioritizing data is clearly in the works. FCC chair Ajit Pai mentioned the data created by self-driving cars is up to 4TB per day by his count, this was an example to tell why the fast lanes need to exist. According to him, overall network growth and investment have dipped since the implementation of the rules but many investigations show the results that were opposite to these findings.
A key talking point in favor of the repealing net neutrality is that it compels companies to disclose when they take actions to stop and cut down the speed of their customers. However, the specific language raises some red flags by removing that requirement if it is done in the interest of “reasonable network management.”
There is a precedent for a tiered internet, doling out services and bandwidth according to how much you are willing to pay. AT&T has had an interesting past with this kind of service. In the year 2012, the company barred users from using Apple’s FaceTime video chat app unless they upgraded to a high-tier or mobile service. The company also tried another tiered home internet plan in Reno, Nevada back in 2008. It allowed users between 20GB and 150GB of data in a given month and then charged $1 per GB of the overage.
This selective service also already happens in other countries where there is no concept of net neutrality. In these places, there are instances of “SIM-hopping”, in which users switch between different cellular SIM cards they use in their phones depending on what web service they want to use. The potential for internet service providers to block, throttle and just otherwise mess with the way users want to use the internet is real but no one is quite sure how far that will actually go.
The FCC will have increased oversight in these matters if the repeal goes through. But many FCC members today were quick to point out that the FTC doesn’t have any real technical expertise to leverage in that arena. So, it will largely fall to consumers and advocacy groups to monitor and report potential abuses. If you are willing to do something now, you can consider reaching out to Congress in hopes to put the brakes on. Otherwise, be alert and stay updated about what your internet providers are doing with your internet services.