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In December 2017, the Federal Communications Commission under Chairman Ajit Pai voted to repeal net neutrality rules enacted two years earlier. While 83 percent of Americans support net neutrality and opposed the reversal, broadband providers unsurprisingly supported it. Many said they would not use the repeal as an opportunity to discriminate among internet content -- but now there are no rules stopping them from doing exactly that.
The FCC’s repeal is a radical break from an almost 20 year bipartisan FCC tradition of protecting an open internet. Some proponents of the repeal argue that a year after the decision, the internet is still functioning -- but that doesn’t mean the internet isn’t changing. Consumers may not have noticed broadband providers making network management adjustments, because they are purposefully small and gradual, but they are crucial steps in preventing an open internet.
There have been several potential net neutrality violations since the repeal went into effect:
- AT&T and Verizon both torture the meaning of the word “unlimited” by offering multiple unlimited plans. But the more expensive ones are either paired with the company’s own streaming service, or the companies degrade the quality of the video under certain conditions. These practices may give the carrier’s content an advantage in the marketplace over smaller, independent video producers.
- Sprint has been throttling internet traffic to Microsoft’s Skype service, causing the video quality to be poorer than it should be, which is especially worrisome because Skype is a tool that competes with Sprint’s calling service. These are only two examples of how companies can favor their own content over competitors’ without rules forbidding this behavior.
- Comcast has new speed limits where videos will be throttled to 480p on all its mobile plans unless customers pay extra.
- A recent study shows that the largest U.S. telecom companies, including Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile, are slowing down internet traffic from apps like YouTube and Netflix.
- Verizon’s throttling of services even affected the Santa Clara County Fire Department’s ability to provide emergency services during the California wildfires. The fire department experienced slowed down speeds on their devices and had to sign up for a new, expensive plan before speeds were restored.
- Other examples continue to show that internet companies have already used the lack of net neutrality rules to their advantage to make money and block certain content.
The purpose of having net neutrality rules is to have an expert agency investigate examples like these to ensure the internet remains open to everyone. The trends may be subtle, but companies understand that it is not in their best interest to take noticeable, controversial steps as the repeal is being litigated in Court and there is talk of possible legislation. But if the repeal continues, the way consumers access the internet will gradually change. The need for protections is clear.
If companies continue to act without a net neutrality framework, there is a danger that we’ll see an internet structured like cable networks. But this is not how the internet started. Rather, the internet is a place where everyone can have a voice, unlike cable where you either need a hard-to-get carriage agreement or to be wealthy enough to own a channel to deliver your own content. The internet is also where small businesses can freely compete without worrying about getting pushed out by bigger businesses. But providers now have the authority to normalize selling broadband like they sell cable television by deciding which sites individuals can go to and setting price tiers to access more of the internet. This could become a reality -- and it could happen so gradually that consumers might not even notice the full loss of protections and choices (and rise in costs) until it’s too late.
Unlike cable, the internet has become essential to our everyday lives for everything from communication to job postings, healthcare, and education, and we need to guarantee quality and affordable open access to everyone. Reinstating the net neutrality rules is key to preserving the freedom of the internet. Broadband providers have already begun to prove that we cannot rely on them to adhere to their promises to maintain an open internet. Congress must act to reinstate the FCC’s authority as the expert agency to investigate these anticompetitive business practices and protect consumers.