Why the net neutrality vote could change everything

Image: bob al-Greene/Mashable

It’s finally here.

The Federal Communications Commission will vote Thursday on a measure that would completely gut regulations to internet providers and open the door for net neutrality to be destroyed. 

The vote will likely make it easier for companies such as Verizon and Comcast to start divvying up the internet and turn it into something more akin to cable TV: i.e. something more expensive, fragmented, and more focused on making as much money as possible. The vote will likely ensure no regulator can do anything to stop these companies.

Let’s walk through what’s happening here. 

What is net neutrality?

Net neutrality is a term used to describe a set of regulations that ensure all information flowing over the internet is treated equally. It means companies cannot block websites or offer certain companies faster loading speeds for money.

For example, internet services providers like Verizon and Comcast are currently prohibited from charging you more money to visit sites such as Netflix and Youtube. Verizon and Comcast are also prohibited from charging Netflix and YouTube to prioritize their traffic over other websites or services. 

Until now, the internet mostly evolved under net neutrality principles. This meant that the internet was something of a meritocracy. The best idea would conceivably win out, even something like two guys starting a search engine out of a garage

Without net neutrality, this could change, opening up the door to corporate domination of the internet.

What is happening?

The FCC is voting on Dec. 14 to undo the changes put in place by the previous FCC administration under former president Barack Obama. 

There’s little drama here. The FCC is made up of five commissioners appointed by the sitting president. It is always skewed 3-2 in favor of the president’s party. In this case, it’s a 3-2 Republican majority under Chairman Ajit Pai — and they’re all going to vote for the repeal unless something truly surprising happens. 

How could this affect you?

Imagine having to pay an extra $10 per month so that Netflix streams fast enough to watch movies. Or that an app creator needs to pay AT&T millions of dollars so that new customers can actually access it on the company’s wireless network.

These accessibility issues are the kinds of things that net neutrality proponents theorize could happen without regulations. Once major companies are able to start negotiating with each other over how data flows across the internet, there’s no shortage of ways to pass higher costs on to consumers while scuttling innovation. 

Why do we need the FCC for net neutrality?

This is a key component to the net neutrality debate. 

Net neutrality proponents argue that when internet providers are allowed to do whatever they want, they will inevitably violate net neutrality in order to make money from companies like Google and Facebook, which have plenty of cash and would love to tilt the playing field in their direction.

Opponents of net neutrality regulation argue that the internet has done just fine without aggressive governance, and that the FCC’s rules limit investment (a point that has not proven true). 

What is the FCC voting on?

The FCC vote on net neutrality will do a few things. The most important thing is to alter how internet providers are regulated.

The U.S. government regulates what companies do and how they can do it. That includes internet providers including Comcast, Verizon, and plenty more. The FCC has traditionally regulated these companies.

Previously, the FCC had regulated these companies as “information services,” which gives the regulator relatively constrained power in what it can tell internet providers what to do—particularly in enforcing net neutrality.  

Under Obama, the FCC voted to change this. The change provided the legal cover for the FCC to actively prevent internet providers from violating net neutrality. 

Trump’s FCC is voting to undo those rules—and then some.

It’s more than net neutrality?

Way more. Thursday’s vote is not just to undo the FCC’s previous move. It’s to remove the FCC from the picture entirely, instead relying on the Federal Trade Commission to make sure internet providers don’t abuse their power. 

This is a little wonky, so let’s use a metaphor. Imagine the FCC like the cops. They are proactive. They’re out there making sure people don’t break the rules. If someone wrongs you, they take swift action.

The FTC is more like the court system. If someone wrongs you, you have to take them to court. Then you have to wait. Then you have to hope you win. This is what the FTC is—a passive system.

What Pai is saying by removing the FCC is that we don’t need cops making sure internet providers follow the rules. Instead, he’s relying on the courts. 

But there’s a big catch—there’s a legal debate if the FTC even has the legal authority to do anything with regard to internet service providers.

Wait, the FTC can’t even enforce net neutrality?

Few people think the FTC is in any way prepared to be an effective check on internet providers. 

That is if it’s even allowed to do so. There’s a court case pending between AT&T and the FTC about whether the FTC has any legal authority to take action against internet providers. 

In short, the FCC is about to abdicate all regulatory power over internet providers to a part of the U.S. government that may well have zero legal authority. 

In this case, internet providers would be basically unregulated. 

Is there any good news?

Yes, there is.

The FCC will face a volley of lawsuits immediately after its vote. Those lawsuits will argue that the FCC did not make this change on the merit of the facts and that the move itself is a violation of what the FCC is mandated to do

Those legal challenges bear a decent chance of overturning the FCC’s actions, though it’s far from a sure thing. Courts tend to defer to government administrators, which in this case is the FCC and its chairman, Ajit Pai. 

Still, there’s some reason for optimism. Previous court rulings have essentially laid out why the FCC could and should regulate internet providers as done under the Obama administration. And courts have generally upheld those rules since then.

It’s a silver lining on an otherwise very dark cloud. 

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