Everyone take a moment of silence please — the free and open internet is all but dead.
In December 2017 the FCC, under chairman Ajit Pai, voted to repeal net neutrality, signaling the end of the open internet as we know it.
The decision was controversial at the time, with everyone from Alyssa Milano to Reddit calling out the FCC in the lead-up to the vote, but the the vote was just the first step toward repeal. To enact the change, the FCC would have to officially list the ruling and provide a timeline for it.
That listing came in February and, now we’re even closer to net neutrality’s funeral. The listing notes the repeal’s effective date as April 23, but there’s a big asterisk next to it. The effective date isn’t actually the effective date for the most impactful parts of the repeal. We have to wait for an administrative step — a review by the Office of Management and Budget — and then there will be another published notice.
As we prepare for net neutrality to take its last gasp of air, here’s a reminder about what its loss means for you. (There are plenty of lawyers ready to restart the fight in court, so despite the eulogies, the headlines won’t stop any time soon.)
Remind me: What is net neutrality?
Net neutrality is a series of regulations, instituted by the Obama administration, designed to ensure that the internet is open and free. That sounds very conceptual but basically it means internet service providers (ISPs) like Comcast or Verizon can’t slow down specific sites and charge companies for preferential treatment for internet access.
The dominant metaphor used to explain net neutrality is the image of a highway. Under net neutrality, the internet functions as a one-lane highway — everyone and everything flows at the same rate, on the same path (more or less). Every site, no matter how big or small, was given equal access.
“At the core, [net neuatrality] means all data and content on the internet must be given equal rights, whether you’re a college student in a dorm room or a mega-conglomerate that uses up a lot of the web’s speed for, say, streaming movies and TV shows,” Mashable’s Samantha Murphy wrote in 2015.
But without net neutrality, ISPs could institute fast and slow lanes, decide to block sites, and charge companies more money varying levels of access to their audience. In other words, hypothetically speaking, a company like Hulu could pay more money to load faster than Netflix, effectively purchasing a competitive edge.
The decision has largely been decried as a move that undermines innovation, making it harder for startups and younger companies to compete with existing corporations that can afford to cover the costs for preferential treatment from ISPs.
“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,” Mashable’s Jason Abbruzzese wrote in 2017 following the net neutrality vote. “Without net neutrality, this could change, opening up the door to corporate domination of the internet.”
On December 14, the FCC voted in a 3-2 decision to repeal the net neutrality legislation put in place by the Obama administration.
Opponents of net neutrality say net neutrality is an overextension of government regulation, that the internet doesn’t need federal governance to function fairly.
Instead, the FCC board says that if there is a violation, those violations can go to the FTC.
Explaining the vote, Mashable’s Jason Abbruzzese used a cops and courts metaphor. The FCC are the cops preventing crimes from happening. But the FTC is like a court, adjudicating after a crime has been committed.
“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,” Abbruzzese outlined.
But I don’t own a business. I just use the internet to browse. Does this affect me too?
Yep! The repercussions of net neutrality could also be felt but individual internet users. After all, if an ISP institutes slower load times for your favorite sites, that means more time waiting for them to appear in your browser or app. In other words, without net neutrality, you may see more of those infamous internet buffering icons on your favorite websites.
Another thing that could happen is, in order to pay for a higher tier of internet access, services may start charging higher premiums to offset the increased cost of broadband.
Overall, the industries that will be affected by the net neutrality repeal run the gamut of services — from porn to health care (“These days, electronic health records are often kept in the cloud, and fast and reliable access to this data is vital to patient care,” writes Mashable’s Jack Morse).
So that’s it? Net Neutrality is just over now?
Fortunately, not all hope is lost.
First, just because the lack of net neutrality means, technically, ISPs can charge for preferential internet access doesn’t mean they necessarily will. And some ISPs have already stated their commitment to keeping the internet open. For instance, Comcast senior executive VP David Cohen wrote a blog post stating, “Comcast customers will continue to enjoy all of the benefits of an open Internet today, tomorrow, and in the future. Period… We’ve said consistently we’ve not entered into paid prioritization agreements and have no plans to do so.”
Also, proponents of net neutrality aren’t going down without a fight.
States and towns are sticking up for an open internet, passing local legislation to protect and free an open internet. New York’s governor Andrew Cuomo, for instance, signed an executive order stating that “the internet is an essential service that should be available to all New Yorkers,” and accordingly banned New York State’s government from entering any contract with ISPs unless they agree to net neutrality principles. Montana governor Steve Bullock also signed an executive order stating that “the state of Montana will only do business with companies that adhere to net neutrality.”
I signed an executive order at my former high school to ensure the State of Montana will only do business with companies that adhere to #netneutrality and I’m inviting all other states to join me – if you want a copy, I’ll personally email it to you. pic.twitter.com/ZZSJ0ZrELp
Meanwhile, over 20 state attorneys general — including AGs for New York, California, Hawaii, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Oregon, and D.C. — have filed a lawsuit against the FCC and the United States of America.
“An open internet — and the free exchange of ideas it allows — is critical to our democratic process. The repeal of net neutrality would turn internet service providers into gatekeepers – allowing them to put profits over consumers while controlling what we see, what we do, and what we say online,” said Attorney General Schneiderman of New York said in a statement about the suit.
The question that remains is how much can ongoing lawsuits and state legislation counter the repeal of net neutrality.
“In some circumstances, a federal agency like the FCC can “pre-empt” state and local laws and rules when they are inconsistent with federal laws and rules. Comcast and Verizon asked for this preemption after Congress repealed the FCC’s strong broadband privacy rules and some 16 states introduced laws that would protect users’ privacy. As usual, Pai gave these powerful companies exactly what they asked for,” Gigi Sohn wrote for Mashable in November 2017.
Is there anything that I can do to advocate for Net Neutrality?
The fight against net neutrality can seem like it’s happening all above us: States and giant tech companies fighting the federal government. But there is a lot that we as consumers can do to stand up for net neutrality rules.
The first, obviously, is to stay informed of any changes that are happening. One way to stay informed about what changes companies are making following the net neutrality is to read the “terms of service,” assistant professor of information at the University of Michigan told Mashable in December 2017, following the FCC vote.
You can find a helpful explainer on how to be a responsible citizen of the internet in a post-net neutrality world here.
Correction: The headline and story have been corrected to note that net neutrality’s full repeal still requires approval from the Office of Management and Budget. Once approved by that administrative body, net neutrality will be officially dead.