The days of a free and open internet are facing a twilight.
On Tuesday, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) announced a sweeping repeal of the Obama-era net neutrality regulations, which prohibited Internet Service Providers (ISPs) from slowing down or blocking certain websites, or speeding up websites which agree to pay the corporations a fee. The proposal still has to be approved in a December 14 meeting of the FCC, but it is widely expected to pass.
Writing in the Wall Street Journal, FCC chairman Ajit Pai said that removing the “heavy-handed” regulations will let consumers “benefit from greater investment in digital infrastructure, which will create jobs, increase competition, and lead to better, faster, and cheaper internet access — especially in rural America.” Pai went on to describe accusations that repealing net neutrality would harm innovation and free speech as “fearmongering.”
But Pai’s wrong. A repeal of net neutrality rules would be incredibly damaging to free speech in the United States, and it would also stifle the ability of small websites to help innovate and change the web — all while the customer is forced to pay more for an inferior product.
Over the last 15 years, the free and open nature of the web has allowed for tiny start-ups to blossom into essential tools we use every day. After being developed by three Estonian software engineers in 2003, Skype is now valued in the billions. Google was the brainchild of two Stanford PhD students during the 1990s, and in 2003, a Harvard sophomore set about inadvertently changing the world with a student directory website known as “thefacebook.”
Under a net neutrality repeal, the scales would tip drastically away from small-time innovators towards the massive corporations like Verizon, AT&T, and Comcast who are providing your internet. With the rules about equal access to websites relaxed, ISPs would be able to create a two-tier structure and decide which websites get to go in its “fast lane” and which websites are relegated to a slower tier of service.
Not only do the ISPs win financially from this by forcing websites to pay for the fast lane, but they also get to stifle access to competing products. ISPs already have a murky history of doing this. In 2012, for example, AT&T tried to block access to Apple’s FaceTime app unless its customers coughed up more cash. The same year, the FCC fined Verizon $1.25 million for asking Google to remove applications that allowed users to get around Verizon’s $20 tethering charge. AT&T, Verizon, and T-Mobile have also previously blocked Google Wallet because it was similar to a mobile payment product they had designed. Comcast has also previously tried to slow down Netflix.
“[The repeal’s] a huge advantage for entrenched companies,” Congressman Ro Khanna (D-CA) tweeted last month. “But it totally ices out startups trying to get in front of people which stifles innovation.”
If you want further proof of what a repeal of net neutrality would be like, look to Portugal as an example. There, Internet Service Provider MEO has started to split internet access into packages — 5 Euros for social media apps, 5 Euros for music apps, and so on.
Now imagine this sort of system implemented in the United States, where many ISPs maintain a monopoly in certain regions and telecommunications companies have consolidated into massive corporate behemoths widely hated by their customers for their awful customer service. A grim picture starts to emerge of just what a repeal of net neutrality will look like in the United States.
There’s also the worrying issue of internet privacy lurking over the horizon. Back in March, Trump completely repealed the FCC’s Obama-era regulations that banned ISPs from storing or selling certain types of information without user consent — information like financial history, chat logs, and location details. Now that the major ISPs have access to that information, along with control over what websites you have access to, the internet is looking less and less like the internet we know, and instead like a cable package with tailor-made ads.
Verizon, Pai’s former employer, was naturally delighted at the news of the repeal. “We’re very encouraged by Chairman Pai’s announcement today that the FCC will move forward next month to restore the successful light-touch regulatory framework for Internet services,” the company said in a statement. However, former Democratic FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler lamented the announcement on Tuesday as “tragic.”
“The job of the FCC is to represent the consumer,” he told the Washington Post. “Tragically, this decision is only for the benefit of the largely monopoly services that deliver the Internet to the consumer.”