The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) released its proposal to end Obama-era net neutrality protections today, the day before Thanksgiving, with plans to vote on December 14.
The proposal would effectively allow internet service providers (ISPs) to charge their customers more to access specific content, create “slow” and “fast” lanes for specific traffic, and outright block some websites, among other things. It would also prevent states from introducing their own laws to preserve net neutrality within their own borders.
This rollback of Obama-era protections doesn’t come as a surprise. FCC chairman Ajit Pai has repeatedly said that net neutrality laws have prevented ISPs from expanding their networks to create jobs and serve more people. Efforts to push back against those claims, such as a Last Week Tonight segment that urged viewers to support net neutrality, have been dismissed by the agency.
At the heart of Pai and the FCC’s argument is the notion that the net neutrality protections introduced in 2015 represent a regulatory overstep that hinders ISPs’ ability to grow without offering consumers any meaningful benefits. Instead, Pai wants the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and existing antitrust laws to be the only things standing up for a free and open internet.
Well, that’s all he wants from a regulatory standpoint, anyway. The proposal would also include one other form of “protection”—transparency. To quote from the proposal:
Next, we require ISPs to be transparent. Disclosure of network management practices, performance, and commercial terms of service is important for Internet freedom because it helps consumers choose what works best for them and enables entrepreneurs and other small businesses to get technical information needed to innovate. Individual consumers, not the government, decide what Internet access service best meets their individualized needs.
The idea here is that Americans would simply be able to choose not to sign up with a specific ISP if they disagree with their business practices. Yet it’s not clear if you would be able to exit an existing contract, for example, or for how long ISPs would have to offer “pure” services before switching to tiered offerings. (If they decide to do so at all.)
Another problem with the idea that Americans will be able to choose between ISPs is the simple fact that a few companies control most of the market. This is especially true of broadband service—for many people, the choice won’t be between two broadband providers, it’ll be between a broadband provider, DSL provider, or no provider at all. “Transparency” in this instance merely lets you know how screwed you’ll be if these rules pass.
If they do, the internet as we know it could be quite different. Streaming services might become more expensive or stop operating. The video game industry’s reliance on downloads and online multiplayer could make gaming more expensive. And the media industry, which is already struggling to survive due to declining ad revenues and rising distrust from the public, could be effectively silenced by the companies they cover.
Many have opposed the FCC’s proposal. Its comment site was overwhelmed after the Last Week Tonight, for example, and many tech companies supported protests against Pai’s vision for the internet’s apocalypse. Platforms like Reddit, Twitter, and Discord have all been lit aflame today with pleas for their users to contact their local politicians and urge them to support net neutrality. People, it turns out, like having an open internet.
Even Pai’s colleagues have criticized his proposal. FCC commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel tweeted:
This is the @FCC plan to roll back #NetNeutrality: https://t.co/05owAva2hu. Don't boo. Read it. Then roar. It's time to make a ruckus. It's time to #SaveNetNeutrality.
Let’s hope those roars ring loud enough. You can read the entire proposal here, and you can call your local and state representatives to let them know what you think.