FCC chair Ajit Pai gets the decision he craved and is now making way for a multi-lane internet.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has voted 3-2 to dismantle net neutrality rules established during the Obama era, setting the stage for a multi-tiered internet with the odds in favour of those who can afford the best speeds.
In essence, US telcos and internet service providers (ISPs) will now have the power to block or slow down websites based on who pays them the most money.
‘The FCC’s decision to gut net neutrality protections isn’t just partisan business as usual; it’s a withdrawal from over a decade of work to protect internet users from unfair practices by ISPs’
– ELECTRONIC FRONTIER FOUNDATION
The move is potentially a major setback for consumers who will have to carry the costs.
For example, internet services such as Netflix or Hulu will have to agree deals with players such as AT&T or Verizon to carry their data or face having their services throttled or slowed down. At first, consumers won’t notice anything significant but, in time, they may have to shoulder the cost burden through higher bills.
The 3-2 vote seemingly reflects US politics and the views of the administration of US president Donald Trump, with FCC chair and Republican Ajit Pai keen to nix the net neutrality rules set out by Barack Obama’s administration in 2015.
The danger for the rest of the world is that other countries may follow suit as a result of heavy lobbying by telecoms companies.
Pai is adamant that the decision to dismantle net neutrality and usher in “light-touch” regulation is about internet freedom. In reality, it is about giving big businesses free rein.
“Not only was there no problem, this ‘solution’ hasn’t worked,” Pai said, referring to the 2015 regulations.
“The main complaint consumers have about the internet is not, and has never been, that their internet service provider is blocking access to content. It’s that they don’t have access at all, or enough competition. These regulations have taken us in the opposite direction from these consumer preferences.
“Under Title II, investment in high-speed networks has declined by billions of dollars. Notably, this is the first time that such investment has declined outside of a recession in the internet era. When there’s less investment, that means fewer next-generation networks are built. That means less competition. That means fewer jobs for Americans building those networks. And that means more Americans are left on the wrong side of the digital divide.”
And so, with a poker face that would flatter Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Pai has laid the ground for internet fast and slow lanes, while saying it is all about internet freedom.
Here comes the pay-to-play internet
Understandably, advocacy groups such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) are upset.
“The FCC’s decision to gut net neutrality protections isn’t just partisan business as usual; it’s a withdrawal from over a decade of work to protect internet users from unfair practices by internet service providers,” the EFF said.
“While the FCC’s approach has changed over the years, its goal of promoting net neutrality did not. Two years ago, it finally adopted legally enforceable rules, most prominently bright-line prohibiting ISPs from blocking, throttling and creating internet ‘fast lanes’ that would favour some sites and content over others. But, as the saying goes, elections have consequences. One consequence of the 2016 election is that the FCC has new leadership that feels free not just to change the rules, but to get rid of them altogether.
“Because the draft order repeals net neutrality rules altogether, it allows ISPs to block or throttle lawful content, or give the highest-paying websites and apps a better ability to reach customers’ devices, or to favour internet traffic from the ISPs’ own subsidiaries and business partners, all without any legal repercussions. It paves the way for an internet that works more like cable television, where wealthy insiders decide which speakers can reach a broad audience. A pay-to-play internet means that smaller sites and apps, or start-ups without major funding, will be forced to negotiate with multiple ISPs to avoid their content being buried, degraded or even blocked.”
So, is this the end of net neutrality? Hard to say. If it’s not the end, then it’s the beginning of the end.
The next chapter could see a raft of legal challenges by citizen groups and internet players such as Google or Netflix, which have been vehemently opposed to net neutrality.
A coalition of state attorneys general in the US have pledged to sue the FCC to stop the rollback of net neutrality while policymakers in California and Washington will try to stop telecoms giants from slowing down or blocking websites, or prioritising other content.
But, as I’ve warned before, if net neutrality becomes the order of business in the US, then don’t be surprised if it eventually becomes the norm in places such as Europe, too.
Protester outside a Verizon Wireless store in defence of net neutrality. Image: Cyrene Krey/Shutterstock