What the net neutrality repeal means

Greg Nash

After a protracted and vicious fight, the Federal Communications Commissions (FCC) on Monday officially repealed net neutrality rules requiring internet providers to treat all web content equally.

The Republican-led FCC’s decision to scrap the Obama-era rules has led many observers and consumers to wonder: “How will my internet be affected?”

The most vocal advocates for the rules, including activist groups like Fight For The Future and lawmakers like Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Rep. Mike Doyle (D-Pa.), fear that the end of the rules could lead to higher internet costs for the American public, barriers to entry for internet start-ups and broadband companies having the power to slow down and censor websites at their choosing.

Broadband companies and their allies in Congress, such as Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John Thune (R-S.D.) and Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), argue that scrapping the rules will free companies like AT&T and Comcast from onerous regulations. This in turn will allow the companies to invest more money in broadband infrastructure and offer cheaper internet to consumers, they argue.

What’s at stake?

In 2015, after another long and vitriolic debate, the FCC under former President Obama created a set of regulations aimed at ensuring a level playing field on the internet.

The agency introduced a set of regulations aimed at keeping internet service providers from being able to intervene in several general areas: blocking websites, slowing websites down and offering prioritization to websites that coughed up extra money through the creation of “fast lanes.”

The regulations also transferred over the authority to regulate broadband companies from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which its critics say lacks the teeth to properly regulate broadband companies, to the FCC.

Now that the rules have been officially, all of this will be scrapped.

This means that internet companies can engage in this type of behavior with impunity — with a caveat. Under FCC Chairman Ajit Pai’s plan, if broadband providers say that they will not engage in certain types of behavior (throttling, blocking, etc.) and are caught doing so, they could face penalties.

Pro-net neutrality groups are furious.

“Eliminating Net Neutrality is the most hostile action against consumers that the FCC has ever taken. And it’s a body blow to free speech and our very democracy,” said Michael Copps, former FCC Commissioner and special adviser for Common Cause’s Media and Democracy Reform Initiative.

The rollback can affect consumers, but start-ups fear that this could affect them too. Massive companies like Facebook, Google and Netflix can afford to pay for deals with internet service providers to ensure fast access to their data. Newer startups might not have the cash to do this, which their lobbying groups like Engine and the National Venture Capitalist Association have warned about.

Are the rules completely dead?

For the time being. But there are still avenues to revive them.

It’s possible that Congress could pass legislation creating a more permanent set of net neutrality rules. However, this is seen as unlikely. Republicans, who currently control Congress, say that Democrats aren’t willing to compromise on a deal. Democrats have said that they haven’t seen a deal from Republicans that they believe would properly ensure the protection of neutrality.

One of their chief points of disagreement is over who gets to regulate broadband companies. Republicans believe that this power should be taken from the FCC and given to the FTC, but many Democrats are skeptical that the FTC has the authority to meaningfully regulate broadband companies.

Democrats had tried to use a legislative tool called the Congressional Review Act (CRA), which allows Congress to roll back agency regulatory changes, but could not gain the support of enough House Republicans to get a resolution done.

Markey said he isn’t done with the CRA.

“I urge Speaker Ryan to take an immediate vote on my CRA resolution to restore net neutrality,” he said in a statement on Monday. “Until that happens, we will continue to demonstrate in the streets, write letters, make calls, sign petitions, and harness the power of social media. The fight for net neutrality is far from over.”

The other main avenue for the rules to be revived is through the courts. State attorneys general and other pro-net neutrality groups have filed lawsuits to preserve the rules. Litigation is still pending and the impact of court decisions remains to be seen. People on both sides of the fight believe that their arguments will hold up in court.

States have also made their own attempts to preserve the rules. Washington state has passed its own set of net neutrality rules, for instance. Other state legislatures are making their own attempts to maintain the rules at the state level. Democratic governors in five states have also issued their own executive orders aimed at maintaining net neutrality provisions.

What are those who want to end net neutrality rules saying?

Internet service providers, as well as Republicans in Congress and at the FCC, say there is nothing to worry about.

They argue the free market will keep internet companies from engaging in nefarious behavior that harms consumers. In their view, if a broadband company blocks or throttles a website, consumers will flee for a different provider.

AT&T’s Executive Vice President of Regulatory & State External Affairs Joan Marsh said in a statement that nothing will change as the net neutrality rules end.  

“First, the internet will continue to function just as it did yesterday, empowering this generation and those that follow with robust access to information, entertainment and, most importantly, to each other, “she said. “Second, our commitment to an open internet will not waiver, just as our customers expect and deserve.”

And on top of consumers being just as safe, they argue that the internet will actually get better for consumers as companies can put more money into broadband investment and deal with fewer costly regulations.

“Consumers need to know that today is not the end of the internet as we know it. In fact, the FCC’s order returns the internet we’ve always known, simply restoring the same set of light-touch regulations that allowed it to grow since its inception until 2014,” said Blackburn and House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Greg Walden (R-Ore.).

“By taking the internet out of the hands of government bureaucrats and rolling back burdensome 1930s-era rules, it will continue to flourish,” they continued.

Tags Ed Markey FCC FTC Greg Walden John Thune Marsha Blackburn Mike Doyle Net neutrality
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