Ajit Pai, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, is unveiling a proposal to repeal the agency’s net neutrality rules. The proposal to roll back the Obama-era regulations will be subject to a vote by commissioners on December 14 per Wired.
Net neutrality essentially means that internet service providers are “common carriers” and must treat all data on the internet the same and not use charge different fees for different users. The principle prevents ISPs from charging more to customers that use large amounts of data and from slowing, or “throttling,” data for heavy users.
There have been several real-world applications of the principle. In 2004, the FCC fined Madison River Communications $15,000 for restricting its customers access to Vonage, an internet-based phone company that that competed with Madison River’s own products. In 2009, Comcast slowed uploads to some filesharing sites. Earlier this year, AT&T was still restricting access to Facetime for some users who had not subscribed to the company’s shared data plans despite the net neutrality rules that were already in place.
Proponents of net neutrality worry that repeal of the rules would lead to censorship. “Companies like AT&T, Comcast and Verizon would be able to decide who is heard and who isn’t,” says the activist group Free Press. “They’d be able to block websites or content they don’t like or applications that compete with their own offerings.”
“The consequences would be particularly devastating for marginalized communities [sic] media outlets have misrepresented or failed to serve,” Free Press frets. “People of color, the LGBTQ community, indigenous peoples and religious minorities in the United States rely on the open internet to organize, access economic and educational opportunities, and fight back against systemic discrimination.”
There is little evidence to suggest that internet providers would target ethnic groups or political factions, but there is a strong possibility that companies would favor their own products. “Well-established services from deep-pocketed companies like Google, Facebook, and Microsoft will likely remain widely available,” says Wired. “But net-neutrality advocates argue that smaller companies that don’t have the money to pay for fast lanes could suffer. In other words, protecting net neutrality isn't about saving Netflix, but about saving the next Netflix.”
As with any change in government policy, there are likely to be lawsuits by affected groups that could change or delay implementation of the new policy. The FCC move may also spur Congress to take legislative action. There is bipartisan support for bill that would establish a permanent policy rather than having major changes with each new administration.
Repealing net neutrality rules will not lead to internet censorship, but it will affect some internet users. Consumers who are in areas where there are monopolies for cable and internet service would be particularly vulnerable to restrictive policies of their internet providers.