Net Neutrality: The always up-to-date-guide
It’s extraordinarily likely that you are reading this on the internet and there’s also a good chance that you’re reading this in the US. On Monday, June 11th, 2018, Net Neutrality rules came to an end in the United States.
This is a big deal. And if you’re not careful, the repeal just becomes another brief mention and then that’s it. So much seems to be happening at once that it feels overwhelming – like listening to twenty radio stations at the same time.
So, let’s focus on just what net neutrality is, why it matters and what it means for you.
Along with the car and TV, the internet has revolutionized how we live. So much of our lives are now intimately entwined with it and depend upon it.
Net neutrality is the principle that internet service providers (ISP) have to treat all online internet data fairly. That is to say that all internet users are treated equally in terms of what websites and content they access. It provides a level playing field that ensures that ISP’s cannot slow down or levy fees for particular online content and websites.
Put another way, it means that the smallest online operation gets a chance to be heard and seen on a free and open internet and not just big-bucks companies and corporations that can afford to pay more by way of advertising or exerting other financial pressures.
Obama was clear, both as a Senator and as President, that net neutrality was very important to him. For example, in November 2014, he expressed this in an open letter to the American people:
“Net neutrality has been built into the fabric of the Internet since its creation – but it is also a principle that we cannot take for granted. We cannot allow Internet Service Providers…to restrict the best access or to pick winners or losers in the online marketplace for services and ideas. That is why today, I am asking the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to answer the call of almost 4 million public comments, and implement the strongest possible rules to protect net neutrality.”
Likewise, net neutrality has always enjoyed healthy public support in the United States, as per Obama’s reference to the 4 million comments to the FCC. In contrast, a number of American ISPs opposed net neutrality, as they still do, including AT&T and Verizon.
What is/ Was Net Neutrality in the USA?
Trump appointed Republican Ajit Pai as chairman of the FCC in January 2017. Pai had long been a proponent of repealing net neutrality, referring to it as a “mistake” and “heavy-handed.” Pai had held a number of roles before his tenure with the FCC including a general counsel for Verizon, a huge ISP, from 2001 to 2003.
In the December 2017, the FCC voted, 3-2, to repeal the net neutrality regulations implemented by Obama. Pai was making good his vow to have “light-touch” regulation of the internet. His argument being that net neutrality had stifled innovation and the further future development of broadband across the US.
Critically, with the repeal, the FCC is also removing itself as the “referee” of future broadband development, moving that responsibility the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).
The reason why that is so critical is that the FCC was able to have a defined focus on regulating the internet, ISPs and future broadband development. In contrast, the FTC does not have that focus. It covers a whole range of consumer issues, not just telecommunications, and therefore runs the risk as not being as effective as the FCC was.
Also, the FTC does not have the rule-making and enforcement capacity that the FCC did when it comes to ISPs. The FTC will be limited in that it only has each ISPs voluntary code of standards to look at in the case of alleged wrongdoing. Without a broadband provider having made a voluntary commitment to net neutrality, the powers of enforcement by the FTC are very limited.
The FTC can also look at ISPs through the lens of anti-trust activity, but that sort of scenario is very rare and can take years to resolve. Whereas the FCC could be proactive in ensuring that the internet was regulated and fair for all, the FTC can only really take action, whenever that may be, in a reactive sense.
Opponents strike a very different tone. They claim that the repeal of net neutrality regulations and the switch from the FCC to the FTC means that over time, ISPs and broadband companies will be able to control more and more of your internet experience.
Like cable TV, if you are prepared to pay more, you can get better, faster access to internet services that you had previously taken for granted. Particularly so if major ISPs give their own services priority over others online.
The fear of internet “fast lanes” being set up by ISPs, where you pay extra for a better service, have also been flagged up. Those who use non-fast lane services may see restrictions in both what they can access and internet speeds.
Another concern is that a less regulated internet means that the internet is more at the mercy of established ISP and broadband providers and that will allow them to squeeze out new and up and coming competitors, making the market actually less competitive.
Opponents of the repeal are overwhelmingly Democratic, although a handful of Republicans have also denounced the move. Consumer groups and civil rights organizations have also condemned the repeal. And for extra clout, giants like Mozilla, Reddit, Netflix, Etsy and Google have also criticized the repeal arguing that it is neither in the interests of consumers or enhancing future broadband technology.
In May this year, the matter was introduced to a vote in the Senate courtesy of the Congressional Review Act (that allows the Senate to repeal federal agency regulations by way of a majority vote, instead of the usual 60 votes needed for most legislation being considered.) Surprisingly, the Senate voted 52 to 47 in favor of stopping the repeal. All 49 Senate Democrats voted to stop the repeal, along with 3 Republicans who were prepared to break party ranks in the name of keeping a free and fair internet. Those 3 were John Kennedy (Louisiana), Susan Collins (Maine) and Lisa Murkowski (Alaska).
How your Senator voted on the Net Neutrality repeal
Click the icon in your state to see how your senator voted. If you're not happy with that vote, you have the power to change their mind! Read the 'Get involved' section below to see what you can do to.
While the vote was a step in the right direction, that was about as far as it went. Having got through the Senate, the measure would have to head to the House of Representatives where it would likely hit the rocks and flounder. Regardless, a vote in the House has been called for but is yet to happen.
However, your internet experience won’t really be any different from what it was the day before. Any changes would more likely come over time as opposed to suddenly.
The Senate vote / measure is still yet to be heard by the House and the November mid-term elections are inching ever closer. A fundamental change in the composition of the House would add a new dimension to matters.
What the net neutrality repeal means for companies
The decision to end net neutrality immediately sent shock-waves among online small businesses, freelancers and up-and-coming e-entrepreneurs. Fearful of online commerce becoming skewed against small business and loaded in favor of established online heavy-weights, the National Small Business Association (NSBA) was quick to sound an alarm bell:
“This change will allow internet companies to charge a fee for band-width use, stymieing access to information and content to those with fewer resources. Furthermore, this change could make breaking out with a new technology, or product, or company, all the more difficult – something about which NSBA’s members are concerned.”
And the NSBA were right to be worried. While June’s repeal has subsequently been buried under a mountain of Trump related controversy, and one could almost be forgiven for thinking that it’s business as usual, the risk and implications for the future remain.
A survey earlier this year by Paychex found that:
“59 per cent of small business owners think repealing net neutrality will mean less traffic to their firms’ website because internet service providers will favor large corporations over theirs.”
Obama’s net neutrality rules of 2015 ensured that irrespective of size or financial clout, every online entity would have equal opportunity in cyberspace. Internet Service Providers (ISPs) were obliged to provide their services equally, irrespective of the brand, size or reputation of their users. That is no longer the case post-repeal. Potentially now, the bigger, more established you are online, and, crucially, the more you can pay, the better the service you receive.
For now, no discernible changes have happened. However, the potential is there and the risk remains as the ISPs are now bound by nothing more than their own self-regulatory codes of practice.
Consequently, fears have grown that the repeal will supress up and coming online commercial innovation as the playing field will no longer be level. Some ISPs have offered assurances that they remain committed to an open and fair internet, post repeal, but concerns remain – and for good reason.
Established online giants who can more than afford to pay for faster internet-traffic lanes, which the repeal potentially allows for, will have the upper-hand over their less affluent, smaller, up-and-coming online rivals.
If as a smaller, less-established business, is unable to pay for the more streamlined, faster services offered by ISPs, that has real ramifications for the customer service that it can offer. Potential customers are more likely going to be turned off by a website that has stop-start features, slower downloads and inferior quality images. Customers want what they want then-and-there and will likely surf elsewhere – like more established online businesses that can afford to provide the better browsing experience.
The repeal therefore is far from business as usual for millions of companies across the US.
How the net neutrality repeal will affect US citizens
Let’s be direct here - the implications of the repeal of net neutrality for US citizens are wide-spread and profound.
With internet traffic no longer treated in an equitable fashion by ISPs, regular consumer-citizens are faced with the prospect of paying more for services that they previously took for granted. Like cable TV providers, ISPs can now potentially offer a range of service, subject to what their consumers can afford.
This is something that has not happened over-night as the ISPs are too mindful of making that much of a display and subsequent out-cry. No, this is a longer-term risk as the service that was previously taken for granted with net neutrality is eroded bit by bit. There is no longer any FCC enforcement as before – ISPs are now bound by their own codes of self-conduct.
Consumers are now more exposed to the risk of the costs of their quality internet experience going up. For those that choose not to pay for “fast-lane” services, they can expect to have less choice and a poorer internet experience in general.
Download speed is a critical factor for the vast majority of those browsing the internet. If a download is slow or quality-impaired, an internet user is highly likely to quickly look elsewhere. The repeal could see parts of the web have an almost “dial-up” feel to them of two decades or so ago.
Courtesy of the repeal, ISPs are also now fully at liberty to block those parts of the web that they feel are not in accordance with their philosophy and, of course, financial interests. That in turn means less choice as the ISP, not the consumer, gets to dictate what gets viewed and what doesn’t. Effectively people’s online experience becomes “throttled.”
Privacy concerns also arise with the repeal. Many internet users rely on Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) to ensure that their details, browsing history and online security are robust and protected. VPNs tend to slow down a browsing experience in any event because of the encryption process applied. So, add throttling on top of that and it becomes a distinct possibility that individuals (and businesses too) have to compromise their online privacy and security to maintain an adequate internet experience.
Unfortunately, for 50 million American homes, there is no way around this per “consumer choice” as they only have access to one high-speed broadband provider (or even no provider at all) in their area.
Therefore, the option to look for an alternative provider is just not there. The consumer is at the behest of their internet provider and what they deem to be worthy of seeing, at what speed and at what price and level of quality.
The longer-term ramifications of the repeal are potentially damaging to the broader health of democracy in the US. The internet has historically been a place where all voices, for right or wrong, can be heard. It has become the greatest of vehicles for freedom of expression. In that respect, the internet has been a perfect vehicle for Americans to exercise their First Amendment rights.
With the repeal, citizens, forums, action groups and political movements that are not part of the major ISPs agenda are at real risk of having their voices potentially diminished or even extinguished. The internet could become a lot more corporate sounding while at the same time feeling a lot less democratic and open to all.
What the repeal means for US education
A deregulated, non-neutral internet now poses a significant risk to the learning experience of American classrooms.
The internet is of course an indispensable resource and a revelation for those seeking information. Life now seems to be unthinkable without “a Google search” coming into play at some point in the day.
With net neutrality rules in place, the internet had previously been naturally hard-wired to promote innovation and new ideas, a place for enquiring minds to seek out new ideas, exchange opinions and foster the ethos of learning in general. Post repeal, the internet takes on a more business transaction-feel as opposed to a largely information / learning based experience.
Consequently, the web has revolutionized education and the whole learning experience. It was only just a couple of decades ago that classrooms were based on text books, blackboards and VCR players - if you were lucky.
Educators now rely heavily on technology in the classroom. Learners are able to access near limitless information with a few clicks of a mouse, interface with educational resources and engage in remote online learning.
However, the repeal now casts a shadow over that. Ultimately, ISPs can now have the final say in who sees what online. Given that the internet offers a virtually limitless amount of information and resources, teachers have stressed their concerns that the repeal of net neutrality poses a risk to that with its potential emphasis on paid-for content over freely available content.
Public schools also offer students the opportunity to have access to the internet, regardless of income levels at home. For those students from economically and socially disadvantaged backgrounds, with no internet facilities at home, schools offer a way for them to have access to the online world. With the repeal of net neutrality, those same school-based resources are at danger of being diluted and young learners being further disadvantaged.
If ISP’s start to charge for better, quality services and the likes of “fast lane” web-browsing, those schools operating on tight budgets (most, right?) may feasibly have no other option than to dilute down the internet service they provide to their students in the name of cost.
Similarly, those students who come from less well-off homes, but still have access to the internet there, could have their ability to complete homework assignments compromised by the repeal. With content becoming more expensive and exclusive, students access to online resources at home to complete their homework assignments could become at risk.
Also, future innovations in respect of new education technologies may face uphill struggles post repeal.
Those smaller, newer companies offering new, break-through educational online tools to schools and colleges may be confronted with prohibitive costs online that they simply cannot navigate their way through to fruition.
Joseph South, International Society for Technology in Education Chief Learning Officer stated:
“If you think about a new company, a start-up — and they have some really great new idea to help educators — in order to get their product in front of educators, they may have to pay to make their service fast enough to make it compelling to educators. While the big publishers have the deep pockets to pay for that extra speed, the small ones may not.”
So, these are uncertain times for educators and students. If only the school-bell would now ring time for the end of the net neutrality repeal.
A number of Tech companies (including the likes of Vimeo, Etsy and Mozilla) have launched lawsuits against the FCC in an effort to have net neutrality restored.
Over twenty states, including New York and California, are looking to implement net neutrality within their own jurisdictions, while governors in a number of other states have introduced executive orders that implement the requirement for ISPs to abide by net neutrality principles.
If you are concerned by the repeal there are a number of ways you can get involved.
Voting for like-minded candidates in the midterms is a definite course of action. Also, and before then, contacting your elected representatives to let them know just how you feel about the repeal and how the decision should be reversed.
Stress how this has a detrimental impact on small businesses too.
You can also get involved online with the like of Battle for the Internet with a range of resources and ideas to keep up the fight for net neutrality.