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The FCC announced that current net neutrality rules will expire June 11, 2018. As a last-ditch effort to reinstate the protections, twelve Senators have moved to force a vote. The vote is expected to pass in the Senate but faces an uphill battle in the House. Even if it successfully clears both the Senate and the House, the President is likely to veto it.
As we put Net Neutrality to bed in America for the last time, it’s hard to imagine what will happen in the future. We’ve never faced such uncertainty regarding the Internet.
So, let’s take a look at Net Neutrality from a fictional future perspective to illustrate likely outcomes of Internet Service Providers given free rein.
Ten years in the future, a grandfather is putting his grandson to bed, and they discuss what it was like in the good old days.
“Grandpa, what was net neutrality?”
Once upon a time, sonny, everyone in the United States could go to any website they wanted for information, and Internet providers like the cable company couldn’t block or slow down content they didn’t like.
The cable company couldn’t tell you what pages and movies you could see on the Internet, or charge you more if you wanted to see something they didn’t support. Most of the other advanced industrialized countries on Earth had a similar policy. But all that came crashing to an end in June of 2018.
“That sounds like a fairy tale.”
It’s hard to believe that you used to be able to surf any page on the Internet for free now that we’re only allowed to go to twenty websites and services. When net neutrality first disappeared, we had subscriptions that gave us unlimited access to about 100 sites and services, but big companies bought their way to the top and without any regulations, only the 20 most popular websites survived.
But way back when it first came into widespread use, the Internet was available to anyone who wanted to post information. Even as it grew rapidly in the 1990s, companies, countries, and lawmakers agreed that no one person or entity owns the Internet or should restrict access to it. Sadly, there were just too many villains.
“Did the villains try to take over the world?”
Like a lot of things, it started out fairly innocent but got much worse over time. In 2014 T-Mobile launched a program that exempted music streaming services from its users’ data caps but didn’t include small services like SomaFM. Once the Internet providers were allowed to exempt data from their plans to give a music service partner a leg up, then things got bad. The ISPs implemented more drastic measures, like slowing connections to data-hungry apps like Netflix. They only relented under great consumer pressure.
“Didn’t anyone try to stop the villains?”
The Internet grew much faster than anyone anticipated. It quickly became a utility that people couldn’t live without. Our lawmakers knew that this communication deserved protection, so Congress passed the Open Internet Order on February 26, 2015.
By categorizing the Internet as a common carrier, like landline telephones and electricity, the government ruled that all citizens should have access to this crucial service. The wireless and cable industries threw multiple legal challenges at it, attempting to overthrow the regulation, but were unsuccessful.
“So they restricted access to content even with the strictest rules in Internet history?”
Yes, even though the government ruled that access to the Internet had to be fair and equal, some companies still found a way around it to charge more for data. Verizon only allowed customers on its cheapest plan to watch videos stream at 480p resolution. Of course, if you had more money, you could pay more to watch content at 720p resolution. If you wanted to use your data plan to watch a movie in 4K resolution, the company wouldn’t allow it.
Comcast had a similar limit on their Internet plans. It limited customers to one terabyte each month. So, technically you could watch a 4k video, but the company recommended their traditional cable package if you wanted 4k video.
So technically, consumers had a choice. I mean, you could pay more. Or choose a different plan. But either way, the restrictions on what you could see and how you could access them were starting. You get more choices, but not in the way you actually want.
“The whole decision was left up to five people?”
On December 14, 2017, the five members of the FCC voted on the Restoring Internet Freedom order which removed all consumer protections and left the fate of the Internet up to the open market. The 3-2 vote repealed the Open Internet Order despite overwhelming opposition from Congress, technical experts, advocacy organizations and the American people.
“So they didn’t want Americans to have equal access to the Internet?”
Restoring Internet Freedom removed the FCC’s ability to regulate the broadband industry. The chairman at the time argued that it wasn’t the FCC’s role to protect consumers and small businesses. He claimed that the Federal Trade Commission could protect users from ISP abuse.
After the FCC abandoned its role as broadband regulator, the industry was left with no regulations and wasn’t beholden to any regulators. They could, and did, start blocking and throttling content. Since the FTC is only allowed to enforce the current rules, the agency couldn’t help either.
“I wish it had never happened, Grandpa.”
Once that order went into effect, all of the rules that prevented blocking websites, services, and content were erased. ISPs could slow down any website or service they wanted to. Bigger websites could afford to pay more so everyone could access their stuff, but all of the smaller websites shut down. It became accepted that Internet Service Providers like Comcast would block content, slow video streaming and offer fast lanes for only large companies that could afford to pay a premium.
“Grandpa, there’s not a happy ending?”
No, Sonny, there’s not a happily ever after to this story. Even after everyone warned the FCC that this was a bad idea, they pushed ahead. Advocates said that the FCC shouldn’t be the Internet police and that destroying regulations will let the free market take over. But what we found out was that Internet access was essential for almost everything in 2018. Lots of people lost access to education and information that was available before Net Neutrality disappeared.
There is a moral to the story, though. ISPs shouldn’t put up barriers or lower connectivity speeds to impede customers’ access to certain sites.
Megan Southard is a writer, mom, technology enthusiast, and movie junkie. She dreads the day her kids have to explain gadgets to her and is old enough to say, "I was the remote for our TV growing up."
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