Net neutrality has been a hot button issue across the internet for over a year now, while many non-tech-savvy American citizens have no idea of the logistics or impact that net neutrality has on their lives. A controversial vote from the FCC is taking place December 14th that could alter how internet service providers (ISPs) price the internet forever. Ultimately, the FCC will vote on whether to rid the Title II distinction from the internet.
Here is the laymen’s description of what is happening, which strips away all of the intricacies and nuances and much of the explanation to give you a 30,000-foot view of what everyone on Reddit is getting so worked up about:
What is it?
Currently the internet is classified as a public utility based on Title II of the Communications Act, since February of 2015. This means that service providers must adhere to certain rules and regulations when it comes to customers, similar to what an electricity provider would have to adhere to. For ISPs, it means they can’t offer faster or slower internet speeds to certain customers, companies, or websites, and they must allow for an open and equal internet. They legally cannot slow, block or throttle access to certain websites under the current ruling.
The Washington Post explains what exactly the current FCC is trying to change when it comes to ISPs and net neutrality:
In a news release, Pai said his proposal would prevent the government from “micromanaging the Internet.” Under the new rules, he said, the FCC would “simply require Internet service providers to be transparent about their practices.”
The proposal would also shift some enforcement responsibility to the Federal Trade Commission, which can sue companies for violating the commitments or statements they have made to the public.
Relying more heavily on Internet providers’ own promises on net neutrality is a departure from the current rules, which lay out clear, federal bans against selectively blocking or slowing websites, as well as speeding up websites that agree to pay the providers a fee.
Lifting the rules will allow Internet providers to experiment with new ways of making money. In recent years, some broadband companies, such as AT&T, have tried offering discounts on Internet service to Americans so long as they agree to let the company monitor their Web browsing history, for example. Other companies, such as Verizon, have exempted their own proprietary apps from mobile data caps in a bid to drive user engagement. The practice, known as zero-rating, was criticized by the previous FCC as a potential violation of net neutrality principles, but Pai rescinded his predecessor’s findings upon taking office.
Under the new plan, ISPs could package the internet the way they package cable. They can offer a basic package with access to basic sites like Google, Amazon, etc. Then for an added monthly payment, you can get the social media package with Facebook, Twitter, etc. For an additional price, you can get the sports and entertainment package with ESPN, Barstool Sports, cable sites like Comedy Central, etc. So on and so forth, with packages determining what sites you can visit, and adding to your monthly bill.
Why should it change?
Those critical of Title II distinction argue that ISPs should be allowed to offer different levels of service. As it stands, an ISP isn’t allowed to push more bandwidth and resources to deliver certain information over other information. So, from the ISPs perspective, a customer that wants to access a local blog that averages 100 visitors per month should receive the same service as an FBI agent trying to access a government website, for example.
In addition, they say that the internet should be free of government regulation, and that things worked fine before February 2015 even without the Title II distinction. They claim that this government oversight has deterred the industry from investing in broadband technology, mainly because government jurisdiction could eventually set a base price for ISPs to provide their service. ISPs are wary that a set price will hinder their ability to put money into research of new technology.
Finally, the new proposal promises transparency in all practices. ISPs must inform their customers of how they block or throttle speeds, and what customers are paying for.
Why should it not?
Those for Title II distinction say that killing the distinction will allow ISPs to run wild. They will be able to block or slow connection to specific sites – competitors for example. A company like AT&T that is being hurt by a cord-cutting company like Netflix could slow Netflix streaming down to the point that it is unusable. They could also package the internet the way they package cable, where only those willing to pay can access the full breadth of the world wide web. As the internet is crucial to society, they argue, these laws could allow ISPs to favor certain communities or companies.
In the worst case scenario, opponents claim that this could lead to an internet where information is controlled by ISPs. As they would be able to set prices and broadband speed for customers to reach certain websites, they could therefore make it financially or practically impossible for consumers to reach certain websites the ISP deems unfit for political, moral, or business reasons. An ISP could control what information consumers can access simply by making websites they don’t want consumers to see too expensive or too slow to access.
As for transparency, opponents essentially say there is no help in having a company tell you it will screw you over before it screws you over. Many parts of the country have only a single ISP in their service area, so transparency will do nothing for them – if they want the internet they need to pay their region’s ISP.
Ajit Pai and the FCC
There has also been a fair amount of controversy around the FCC chairman and some of the organization’s practices.
At the center of this controversy is Ajit Pai, the FCC Chairman trying to get rid of the Title II distinction. Appointed in 2017 by President Trump, opponents pointed immediately to his history with Verizon as a clear conflict of interest for the position. The Chairman was a lawyer for Verizon from 2001-2003 before moving to the public sector at the Senate Judiciary Committee and staying there over the past 14 years. It gives opponents easy fodder to suggest Pai is in bed with ISPs and looking out for their interests over those of the American public.
Pai and his supporters claim that the internet has no right to be micro-managed by the government. They claim the distinction of Title II is unconstitutional.
Then there was the comment search back in May of 2017. The FCC sought comments from the general public on their plan to rid Title II distinction, and many suspect the FCC or some other organization of skewing the results. According to Slate:
… there have been allegations that most of the comments came from bots, or some even from dead people. Most of those fraudulent comments were suspiciously against net neutrality, while data analysts found the overwhelming majority of organic comments to be in favor of the internet regulations. In May, the FCC said that its comment system went down due to “deliberate attempts by external actors to bombard the FCC’s comment system with a high amount of traffic,” an attack often referred to as a DDoS attack. Rosenworcel noted that the Government Accountability Office is now investigating that DDoS attack because the FCC’s description of what happened raised some red flags, including questions as to whether or not the attack actually happened, since, according to a letter from two congress members who called for the investigation, the FCC hasn’t “released any records or documentation that would allow for conﬁrmation that an attack occurred.”
There are also current and former members of the FCC that are blasting the proposed reversal. According to WIRED:
The FCC’s two Democratic members blasted the proposal. “Following actions earlier this year to erase consumer privacy protections, the Commission now wants to wipe out court-tested rules and a decade’s work in order to favor cable and telephone companies,” Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said in a statement. “This is ridiculous and offensive to the millions of Americans who use the Internet every day.”
Meanwhile the former Chairman of the FCC, Tom Wheeler, the man that first passed the Title II distinction, spoke with Bloomberg to give his extremely critical point of view:
There are also those that are fighting against the FCC, regardless of their ruling. Congress has plans to combat the decision through other means, according to WIRED:
Before it is even approved, consumer groups are already preparing to challenge the new order in court. The Administrative Procedure Act act bars federal agencies from making “arbitrary and capricious” decisions, in part to prevent federal regulations from yo-yoing every time a new administration is in court. Given that the agency just defended the original net neutrality order in court last year, consumer groups may have a case that Pai’s new order is capricious.
Congress also could intervene. Despite earlier lawsuits by Comcast and Verizon, the broadband industry now says it would welcome laws banning blocking and throttling content so long as providers aren’t classified as common carriers. Whether Congress would or could actually draft a robust net neutrality order is another question entirely.