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Net neutrality repeal means your internet may never be the same

CNET logo CNET 11/23/2017 Marguerite Reardon
a woman holding a sign: Protesters hold a banner saying "Never gonna give up net neutrality." © Provided by CNET Protesters hold a banner saying "Never gonna give up net neutrality."

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai wants the US government to stop "micromanaging the internet."

On Tuesday he introduced a proposal to repeal the controversial 2015 net neutrality rules that prevented broadband companies from blocking or slowing down access to websites or services. 

While many people agree with the basic principles of net neutrality, these specific rules have been a lightning rod for controversy.  That's because in order to get the rules to hold up in court, the FCC reclassified broadband networks so that they fell under the same strict regulations that govern telephone networks.

Pai has called the Obama-era rules "heavy-handed" and "a mistake," and he argues that they've deterred innovation and depressed investment in building and expanding broadband networks. To set things right, he says, he's taking the FCC back a "light touch" approach to regulation.

draft copy of Pai's repeal proposal (PDF) was released to the public on Wednesday. Don't feel like you have to plow through all the bureaucratic and technical complexities to get a handle on the situation. We've assembled this FAQ to put everything in plain English. 

What is net neutrality again?

Net neutrality is the principle that all traffic on the internet should be treated equally, regardless of whether you're checking Facebook, posting pictures to Instagram or streaming movies from Netflix or Amazon. It also means that companies like AT&T, which is trying to buy Time Warner, or Comcast, which owns NBC Universal, can't favor their own content over a competitor's content. 

So what just happened?

Pai, who became FCC chairman after President Trump took office, on Tuesday published a proposal to eliminate the current net neutrality regulations, which prohibit broadband providers from blocking or slowing down traffic and ban them from offering so-called fast lanes to companies willing to pay extra to reach consumers more quickly than competitors. 

But the proposal's most significant change is to strip the FCC of its authority to regulate broadband and instead shift that responsibility to the Federal Trade Commission. Under the 2015 rules, the FCC reclassified broadband as a utility, which gave it the authority to regulate broadband infrastructure much as it did the old telephone network. The proposal would strip away that classification. 

Does this mean no one will be policing the internet?

Pai hopes internet service providers will publicly commit to putting "no blocking" and "no throttling" commitments in their terms of service. That would make these actions enforceable by the Federal Trade Commission, which can take action against companies that violate contracts with consumers or that participate in anticompetitive and fraudulent activity.

Is the FTC equipped to make sure broadband companies don't harm consumers?

Yes and no. The FTC already oversees consumer protection and competition for the whole economy. But this also means the agency is swamped. And because the FTC isn't focused exclusively on the telecommunications sector, it's unlikely the agency can deliver the same kind of scrutiny that the FCC would. 

More importantly, the FTC also lacks the FCC's rulemaking authority. This means FTC enforcement extends only to companies' voluntary public commitments or violations of antitrust law. Unless broadband and wireless carriers commit in writing to basic net neutrality principles, the FTC can only enforce antitrust issues, which must meet a high legal standard. 

What about internet fast lanes? Will the FCC ask companies to voluntarily commit to not offering paid prioritization?

No, the FCC proposal removes the ban that keeps a service provider from charging an internet service, like Netflix or YouTube, a fee for delivering its service faster to customers than competitors can. Net neutrality supporters argue that this especially hurts startups, which can't afford such fees.  

But Pai believes the current rules are too restrictive. He wants to make sure broadband companies can experiment with different business models, such as offering more zero-rated deals, which allow companies to give away content for free without it counting against a customer's monthly data cap. Another potential business model would allow a broadband provider to give priority to a medical application or to services like those enabling self-driving cars. 

Does the proposal leave any of the old rules in place?

The one rule that was spared is the so-called "transparency rule," which requires broadband providers to disclose how they manage their networks. The new proposal will try to expand this requirement. The FCC wants internet service providers to commit to disclosing when and under what circumstances they block or slow traffic and to disclose if and when they offer paid priority services. 

What's it all mean for me?

This is a huge change in policy at the FCC and it could affect how you experience the internet. Whether that experience is changed for the better or for the worse depends on whom you believe. 

Pai and many other Republicans say freeing up broadband providers from onerous and outdated regulation will let them invest more in their networks. They're hopeful this will lead to more expansion in rural and hard-to-service areas of the country, as well as faster speed service throughout the US. The agency's argument for repealing the rules is that investment started to decline in 2015 after the rules were adopted.

But Democrats like Sen. Brian Schatz of Hawaii, consumer advocacy groups, civil rights organizations and technology companies like Google and Mozilla say that repealing the 2015 rules and stripping the FCC of its authority will lead to broadband companies controlling more of your internet experience.

As companies like AT&T, Verizon and Comcast acquire more online content like video, they could give their own services priority on their networks, squeezing out competitors and limiting what you could access. This might mean fewer startups get a shot at becoming the next Facebook, Netflix or YouTube. Ultimately, it could lead to your internet experience looking more like cable TV, where all the content is curated by your provider.

Some critics also fear this control could lead to higher prices. And groups such as the ACLU say it could affect your First Amendment right to free speech as big companies control more of what you experience online.

"Internet rights are civil rights," said Jay Stanley, an ACLU senior policy analyst. "Gutting net neutrality will have a devastating effect on free speech online. Without it, gateway corporations like Comcast, Verizon and AT&T will have too much power to mess with the free flow of information."

What's next?

The FCC is scheduled to vote on the proposal at its Dec. 14  meeting. And since Republicans lead the agency with 3 votes to 2, it will easily pass.

But that's not the end of the fight. Net neutrality supporters have vowed to file lawsuits in defense of net neutrality. Once the order to repeal the rules is published in the federal registry, the lawsuits will likely be filed. Supporters say they feel good about their chances in court, given that a federal appeals court last year upheld the 2015 rules. But as with any legal fight, the outcome is never certain until the judges make their ruling. 

Will Congress take action?

Even though internet service providers may be dancing a jig now over their good fortune to have the FCC rules repealed, if a Democrat is elected to the White House in 2020, the rules could flip back the other way and be reinstated. 

Obviously, this ping-ponging is not good for anyone. For this reason, people on both sides of the issue have called for Congress to take action and amend the Communications Act to codify net neutrality protections. Republicans have offered proposals, but Democrats have balked because they say the legislation would further strip the FCC of authority.

That said, Schatz is working to introduce legislation to protect net neutrality. So stay tuned. 

Is there anything I can do?

At this point, the repeal is going to happen. But net neutrality supporters say it's important to reach out to your elected officials to tell them you're concerned and to urge them to pass bipartisan legislation. Schatz also said that anybody who cares about this issue, including the thousands of people who filed comments to the FCC urging protection for the net neutrality rules, need to turn that concern into action. Midterm elections for Congress are coming up in 2018, and Schatz wants to see tech-savvy young people making the internet a campaign issue.  

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