You may have heard about net neutrality. The term’s been in a lot of people’s news feeds these days as the FCC will soon vote on whether to change it.
So, what is net neutrality? Good Question.
The concept of net neutrality is that all traffic on the Internet should be treated the same. Codified in a set of 2015 FCC regulations, it means Internet Service Providers (ISPs), like ATT, Cox or Comcast, can’t slow down or block access to certain websites.
The regulations date back to 2005, but became official under the Obama administration in 2015.
The FCC is now considering rolling back the regulations and will vote on the topic on December 14. With a Republican majority on the FCC, experts expect the changes to occur. Large companies, like Google, Facebook and Amazon, have come out strongly opposed to changes and in support of net neutrality.
Were the concept of net neutrality to go away, there’s a fear the ISPs would create two lanes of Internet speed – a slow lane and a fast lane where people would be charged extra for certain content.
“It’s important because ISPs are integrated companies and often own their own content,” says Christopher Terry, professor of media law at the University of Minnesota who supports net neutrality. “They have an economic incentive to direct you to content that they own in favor of other content.”
For example, if an ISP wanted people to pay more for Netflix, it could happen in two ways, according to Terry.
“You as the consumer could pay to get a faster Netflix or Time Warner could make a deal with Netflix that would put Netflix in a high-priority lane,” he says. “In both ways, the cost filters back to the consumer.”
Ajit Pai, Chairman of the FCC, wants to end the net neutrality regulations. In an April 2017 speech televised on C-SPAN, he said, “The economics are simple here – the more heavily you regulate something, the less of it you’re going to get.”
“I think people have gotten used to the internet working a certain way,” says Terry. “If these rules are overturned and that’s sustained by a court going forward, the internet that you have will look more like your cable package and less like the internet that you’ve grown accustomed to.”
Millions of Americans have contacted the Federal Communications Commission and Congress in opposition to Pai’s plan. A majority of Americans – 77% — including overwhelming majorities of both Republicans and Democrats, support maintaining net neutrality.
Impact on the Little Guy
With an even playing field, start-ups have been able to compete with established firms. Without net neutrality, the next great web service could find itself in the slow lane, unable to compete with established firms. What about the local blogger who criticizes her ISP’s crummy service? The broadband gatekeeper would be free to slow or silence her.
Even if the FCC votes against Net Neutrality, you can expect lawsuits and challenges to keep the issue tied up in courts for a while.