Net neutrality is dead — at least for now. In a 3-2 vote today, the Federal Communications Commission approved a measure to remove the tough net neutrality rules it put in place just two years ago. Those rules prevented internet providers from blocking and throttling traffic and offering paid fast lanes. They also classified internet providers as Title II common carriers in order to give the measure strong legal backing.
Today’s vote undoes all of that. It removes the Title II designation, preventing the FCC from putting tough net neutrality rules in place even if it wanted to. And, it turns out, the Republicans now in charge of the FCC really don’t want to. The new rules largely don’t prevent internet providers from doing anything. They can block, throttle, and prioritize content if they wish to. The only real rule is that they have to publicly state that they’re going to do it.
Opponents of net neutrality argue that the rules were never needed in the first place, because the internet has been doing just fine. “The internet wasn't broken in 2015. We were not living in some digital dystopia,” commission chairman Ajit Pai said today. “The main problem consumers have with the internet is not and has never been that their internet provider is blocking access to content. It's been that they don't have access at all.”
While that may broadly be true, it’s false to say that all of the harms these rules were preventing are imagined: even with the rules in place, we saw companies block their customers from accessing competing apps, and we saw companies implement policies that clearly advantage some internet services over others. Without any rules in place, they’ll have free rein to do that to an even greater extent.
Supporters of net neutrality have long argued that, without these rules, internet providers will be able to control traffic in all kinds of anti-competitive ways. Many internet providers now own content companies (see Comcast and NBCUniversal), and they may seek to advantage their own content in order to get more eyes on it, ultimately making it more valuable. Meanwhile, existing behaviors like zero-rating (where certain services don’t count toward your data cap) already encourage usage of some programs over others. If during the early days of Netflix, you were free to stream your phone carrier’s movie service instead, we might not have the transformational TV and movie company it’s turned into today.
One of the two Democrats on the commission, Jessica Rosenworcel, called today’s vote a “rash decision” that puts the FCC “on the wrong side of history, the wrong side of the law, and the wrong side of the American public.” This vote, Rosenworcel says, gives internet providers the “green light to go ahead” and “discriminate and manipulate your internet traffic,” something she says they have a business incentive to do.
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