How will the internet change after the FCC repeal of net neutrality?

Net neutrality protest in Medford, Oregon. (KTVL)

On Thursday afternoon the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) repealed a 2015 rule put in place to regulate and codify the founding principle of the internet, net neutrality, the principle that all internet traffic is created equal.

Conservatives on the five-member FCC board prevailed, approving the Restore Internet Freedom rule in a 3 to 2 party-line vote. The repeal of the Obama-era rule, they argued, will facilitate greater consumer access to the internet, create a more competitive environment with more choices of internet service providers, and would restore the "light-touch" regulatory approach that allowed the internet to expand and thrive in recent decades.

As FCC Chairman Rajit Pai announced the repeal of the net neutrality law, hundreds of protesters had gathered outside the commission's Washington, D.C. office warning that the panel just voted to fundamentally change the free and open internet.

Activists held signs and even set up a vigil mourning what they say is the death of net neutrality and a dire threat to users' equal access to the internet.

Social media caught fire with activists tweeting their opposition to the rule change. The pioneers responsible for creating the internet denounced the decision, telling the FCC, "You don't understand how the internet works."

Netflix called the FCC vote "misguided" saying the net neutrality repeal would "gut" important protections for startups. "Without #NetNeutrality, we would never have been able to grow into the business we have today. There's a whole future of startups that deserve that chance," the company tweeted.

Dozens of members of Congress voiced their opposition vowing to fight the new rule. Republican Rep. Mike Coffman (Colo.), an outlier in his party, announced he would introduce legislation to reverse Thursday's decision.

Throughout the day state attorneys general in Washington and New York announced they were planning to sue the FCC to overturn the order. The rule is expected to prompt even more lawsuits from states who will attempt to implement their own net neutrality rules, a measure that is forbidden under the Restore Internet Freedom order.

FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, the lead dissenting voice in the net neutrality vote, explained why there was so much opposition to the new rule. "The public can plainly see that the soon-to-be-toothless FCC is handing the keys to the internet ... over to a handful of multi-billion dollar corporations," she argued, saying the FCC was abdicating its responsibility to protect the millions of broadband consumers nationwide.

Ultimately, critics are concerned that by lifting the 2015 rule, the already consolidated industry of internet service providers (ISPs) will exploit consumers, give preferential treatment to certain users or certain content while silencing other voices and providers.

The 2015 net neutrality order aimed to preempt those issues by establishing a set of "bright-line rules." Those rules banned content blocking, degrading access to certain content (throttling), and paid prioritization — a paid service allowing content providers to use a "fast lane" to bring content to users more quickly.

According to Chairman Pai, the 2015 order was a solution in search of a problem. "There wasn't a problem to solve," the chairman charged. "The internet wasn't broken in 2015."

"The main complaint consumers have about the internet is not, and has never been, that their internet service provider is blocking access to content. Its that they don't have access at all or not enough competition," Pai said. The new rule, he continued, would eliminate the regulations that telecommunications companies have argued create barriers to expanding broadband access. It would also redesignate ISPs as information providers and therefore subject to Federal Trade Commission (FTC) oversight, not FCC oversight.

"Really it's nowhere as big a deal as some people have been saying," said Jesse Hathaway, research fellow at the Heartland Institute, a free-market think-tank. "A lot of this net neutrality, really, hysteria is rooted in hypotheticals. Just because a company could do something, it doesn't mean we should make a rule to prevent it."

Hathaway defended the majority FCC decision, explaining that the internet thrived for decades without the need for specific net neutrality rules and with only a small number of net neutrality violations that were handled by the FTC. "What undoing the Open Internet order means, is returning the internet to the regulatory state that it existed perfectly fine within for decades," he added.

According to Corynne McSherry, legal director for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, it's "deceptive" to say that the FCC's Thursday ruling would simply return the internet to the status quo that existed in 2015.

"Legally they are reclassifying ISPs as information services rather than telecommunications services, but there's a lot more going on than that," McSherry warned.

As the internet developed, it was always based on the underlying assumption of net neutrality, stated either implicitly in principles or explicitly as rules. "What this order says is we are going to reclassify you and you don't have to abide by any of the net neutrality principles that we've all been following for more than a decade," McSherry noted. "So we're not going back to 2015, we're going to 2006, basically."

Without guideposts in place, the American public is left to rely on internet service providers voluntarily committing to maintain fully open, non-discriminatory services, despite the huge commercial incentives that come with blocking, throttling and paid prioritization. "I actually don't think people fully appreciate how radical this move is," McSherry stated.

As the rule goes into effect, Hathaway does not expect the dire conditions that critics have portrayed will actually pan out. "Everyday consumers are not going to see a big difference in their lives," he noted. "If anything this is going to make things better for consumers now that we're reducing the cost of regulation and reducing the regulatory burden on companies."

The worst-case scenario, Hathaway said, is that the internet stays the same as it has always been.

Consumers and supporters of net neutrality rules have also raised concerns about the increasingly lax regulatory environment and lack of competition among internet service providers. The current high-speed internet landscape is dominated by only a handful of players, Comcast, Charter Spectrum, AT&T and Verizon. Internet users hoping to shop for the best provider are often at a disadvantage, finding themselves in an area where there is only one ISP offering high-speed internet access or perhaps two.

"The ultimate vision for this country would be that everybody would have access to high-speed internet service," said Sandra Davidson, communications professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia.

"It is something that we need, it's part of our basic infrastructure now and we don't have it in large sections of this country. In part, the question comes down to who would you trust most to give us the best access over the internet? Do you think that business models and market forces, or heavier government regulations produce the best future for the internet?"

The answer to that question will only become clear as the FCC rule takes effect. If Pai is correct, ISPs will be better able to meet the demand for broadband, even in rural areas of the country where the cost of building infrastructure is high. If the opposition is correct, it could mean a further consolidation of both service providers and content providers at the expense of consumers and small startups.

At the FCC, the prevailing trend is in the direction of allowing market forces to prevail and greater consolidation in the hands of fewer, larger companies, Davidson noted. "The number of voices arguably shrinks and will continue shrinking if we just continue letting the market forces prevail."

The promise of paid prioritization is just too great for internet service providers to resist, according to McSherry, which was one of the reasons the 2015 net neutrality rule was drafted.

"As a practical matter, I think we'll see blocking. I think we'll see throttling. We can be certain that we will see paid prioritization," she said.

ISPs will want to "double dip," first getting paid by the customer who pays fees for internet access, and secondly, getting paid by internet subscribers and content producers who would pay to get their content to viewers faster and at a higher quality. While big subscribers like Google, Netflix, Facebook and large media companies will be able to afford the fast lanes, smaller players will be unable to compete.

"Getting rid of net neutrality is a really good way of ensuring they're able to keep those monopolies," stated McSherry.

The concerns over price gauging, blocking competition, and monopolization have all contributed to what Commissioner Clyburn called an "unprecedented groundswell of public support" for keeping the 2015 net neutrality standards. In the months before Thursday's vote, the FCC was swamped with more than 22 million public comments. Even though at least two million of those comments were fake or generated by bots, the issue has resonated.

Poll after poll has shown the vast majority of the American public is opposed to any changes in the law that could jeopardize net neutrality, Republicans, Democrats and Independents.

The University of Maryland's Program for Public Consulting recently conducted a survey giving respondents a detailed argument both for and against the FCC repeal. In the end, an overwhelming 83 percent of respondents said they favored keeping the net neutrality rules.

The unpopularity of the FCC's latest decision makes one thing absolutely clear, McSherry said, "This is absolutely not over."

The fight for net neutrality rules will continue in the courts as states bring suit and in the halls of Congress as lawmakers demand that all internet traffic is treated the same and protected from blocking or discrimination.

McSherry concluded, "They have not heard the last of Team Internet."

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