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Slipping through the net: what is net neutrality and what’s going to happen now?

Here’s your whole guide to how it works

By Caitlin Sloan

On a cold December day in Washington D.C., a committee of five members took a vote to decide whether or not to repeal net neutrality laws they put in place in 2015.

The vote was put to the Federal Communications Commission by its chairman, Ajit Pai, whose repeal plan is being billed as a means to create competition and encourage investment in high speed networks. The FCC is comprised of Chairman Pai (Republican) and Commissioners Michael O’Reilly (R), Brendan Carr (R), Mignon Clyburn (Democrat) and Jessica Rosenworcel (D).

Last week, in a move that surprised almost no one, the Republican-led commission passed the repeal directly down party lines, with Pai, O’Reilly, and Carr voting in favor. Clyburn and Rosenworcel voted against (and lost).

Which means that the laws put in place in 2015 to protect net neutrality are being reversed.

In the aftermath of this vote, which basically reclassifies broadband internet as an information provider and shifts oversight responsibility into the Federal Trade Commission’s hands, many are left reeling.

Many people also don’t understand what net neutrality means at its core, or how this deregulation might affect them moving forward. This is a guide to understanding what net neutrality really means, and what this vote might spell for the future of the internet.

What exactly is net neutrality?

Net neutrality is a complicated issue, and it’s easy to get confused. Simply put, “net neutrality” basically means an open internet. It’s the idea that internet service providers (ISPs, for short) can’t prioritize some content over others. This keeps things relatively fair; a consumer can access things like websites, videos, gifs, etc. from any source, at an equal rate. No priority is given to one source over another. Sounds good doesn’t it? Well it’s just been repealed.

But what are the rules?

The rules laid out by the FCC in 2015 specifically prevent blocking, throttling, and paid-prioritization. This was brought about by classifying the internet as a common carrier – basically an equally accessible public utility. Like your water, phone service, or electricity. Under Title II, consumer broadband service was classified as such in order to prevent companies from selectively influencing the content consumed by its customers. But now they’ve decided to go back on this decision.

What’s “throttling?”

Bandwidth throttling is when an ISP purposely slows down or speeds up an internet service. While this can be a totally legitimate measure used to manage network traffic and resulting congestion, it can also be used to favor access to specific content.

Well the internet seemed fine before 2015 (and before net neutrality)…so it’ll be fine now, right?

To be fair, to a degree, it was. The rules enacted by the FCC in 2015 specifically prevent blocking, throttling, and paid-prioritization – issues that were plaguing internet users and companies before the FCC vote. ISPs like Verizon and Comcast (two of the main entities who also happen to have poured millions into lobbying for the repeal of net neutrality rules – have a long and tarnished history when it comes to preserving net neutrality.

Before 2015, the FCC mainly acted on good faith relationships with service providers, meaning as long as no one rocked the boat there would be no issues.

Their regulations were purposefully vague, to maintain as little regulation as possible. However, this hands-off plan wasn’t sustainable long-term.

Beginning in 2004, a list of four “Network Freedom” principles were suggested by then FCC Chairman Michael Powell: freedom to access content, to run applications, to attach devices, and to obtain service plan info. This was the first attempt at preserving network neutrality.

In the years that followed, several companies were accused of blocking or throttling service to their customers: in 2007 Comcast was accused of blocking and delaying BitTorrent uploads.

Although the FCC attempted to punish Comcast for this discriminatory practice, in the 2010  Comcast Corp. v. FCC decision, it was decided that the FCC didn’t have the authority to do so.

This prompted the FCC to issue six net neutrality principles, known as the 2010 Open Internet Order. This order included prioritizing things like transparency, no blocking, and a level playing field for consumers and companies.

Although this was theoretically a step forward, cases of net neutrality abuse continued to slip through the proverbial net. In 2014, Verizon sued the FCC over the 2010 regulations, alleging that the agency didn’t have the authority to regulate ISPs as if they were common carriers while they were classified as information services. This was upheld by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, who ruled that enforcing the 2010 Open Internet Order was outside of the realm of the FCC’s authority.

This is when the true need for net neutrality became apparent. ISPs were taking liberties with the FCC’s policy of good faith, providing their consumers with biased access to content. The FCC proposed two options: first, the idea of fast and slow broadband lanes, which would undermine net neutrality; or, the reclassification of broadband as a telecommunications service (a common carrier). This was opened for comments, and the FCC saw its largest response ever – over a million comments by concerned parties. President Obama even appealed to the FCC in favor of upholding net neutrality.

On February 26th, 2015 the FCC voted to reclassify broadband as a common carrier, with the final rule published on April 13th.

So what’s the problem, exactly? Why’s that important?

For starters, it tells us where the internet was headed pre-2015. ISPs were operating almost as free agents. They could and would restrict and allow content on a whim, especially competing content.

Net neutrality rules were put in place to prevent ISPs from delivering a biased, censored version of the internet. Without net neutrality, providers will again be free to limit what we have access to and when we have access to it – and free to charge us more for speeding up that access, or gaining it at all.

Think of net neutrality like a dam erected to stop the flow of biased practices. The tide behind the dam has stagnated for the last 2 years, and you’re not sure exactly what’s on the other side anymore. This repeal is effectually like blasting a hole in that dam without concern for the consequences of what might lay on the other side.

There’s no way to say for sure what the future holds for the internet, but it’s not a stretch to assume that a return to the limited oversight of pre-2015 will not be the walk in the park that Ajit Pai represents it to be.

Even the 2015 rules weren’t infallible. They left loopholes, like allowing zero-rating on a case-by-case basis. An early 2017 report by the FCC staff (before Pai was appointed Chairman by President Trump), concluded that this loophole was particularly vulnerable to “network operators’ potentially unreasonable discrimination in favor of their own affiliates” without effective supervision.

With the repeal of net neutrality rules, these concerns become even more pressing, as, left unchecked they could erupt into a larger issue.

I’ve heard of “zero-rating,” but I don’t know what it is?

A hot topic amidst the net neutrality debate, zero-rating is the idea of exempting certain content from counting against a consumer’s data usage.

This means that ISPs could choose to exempt one site, Netflix, for example, but not others. Using Netflix wouldn’t count against the data a user is allotted, but using Google, Facebook, or YouTube might.

Often, decisions about which sites to exempt are made when websites pay the service provider in order to allow or speed up access to their content.

This puts large, wealthy companies at a huge advantage over smaller companies, which typically have fewer resources at their disposal.

The vote’s already over, so what happens next?

For starters, don’t panic. The internet won’t be collapsing today, tomorrow, or likely next week. Any and all changes will most likely be introduced gradually and tentatively at first.

While the vote might be over, there is time to regroup and think about how to move forward next. Many ISPs have declared no intent to block or throttle service. It is unlikely that any attempt to do either of these will occur in the immediate future, though vigilance won’t hurt any of us.

An important reminder is to continue to make your Congressional representation (including your senators) aware of your opinions on net neutrality.

As their constituents, it’s well within our rights to contact them in order to discuss or give input on current political issues. https://contactingcongress.org/ is a helpful resource to find your congressional representation, as it includes phone numbers, addresses, and fax numbers.

There are also several services like Resistbot, which can be contacted by texting “RESIST” to 50409, that will send pre-formatted letters to members of Congress, your governor, or even the president.

Legislative resolutions that would block this repeal generally seem unlikely at this time, due to the current political climate in D.C.

Despite this, lawsuits are most assuredly in the FCC’s future as multiple groups such as the National Hispanic Media Coalition, and several state attorney generals have expressed intent to file once the rules are officialized – likely sometime in January, or after.

In general, this repeal has the potential to free companies to engaged in the same practices which made net neutrality protections necessary in the first place. Whether or not that freedom will invite overreaching of a similar nature is something that only time will tell.

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