What’s happened in the three months since Net Neutrality was repealed?
Consumer advocates are engaged in several avenues to restore Net Neutrality, from passing new state laws to appealing the original ruling
Advocates of Net Neutrality say they’re not giving up in their quest to overturn the FCC’s decision to repeal the rules. On June 11, the FCC members voted 3-2 in favor of repealing the 2015 regulations and instating new ones. There’s still a chance for Congress to restore the ISP regulations that previously barred providers from blocking websites or slowing them down, but the more likely path to victory at this point is through a lawsuit.
Consumer groups continue to push for repeal because evidence shows that the public commenting period was marred by website downtime, and new evidence shows that Internet providers are slowing down service for some providers rather than complying without regulation in place.
FCC Chair Admits Public Comments Were Limited
In May of 2017, people attempting to use the FCC’s public comment period regarding net neutrality rules were unable to get through to the website. According to reports from USA Today, the FCC said it was because the site was hit with an online attack.
FCC chair Ajit Pai confirmed to a Senate committee recently that there was no such cyberattack. He claimed that he misinformed Congress and the public because he was bound by confidentiality agreement while the attack was under investigation. The truth was that an internal system failure had caused the crash because it couldn’t handle traffic.
Consumer advocates published proof that the cyberattack claim was false almost immediately. The FCC’s public comment system had been notoriously unstable since the 2015 net neutrality battle and still couldn’t handle the volume of public comments on the issue. In my opinion, Pai’s claim about confidentiality was a convenient way for him to ignore the public input so he could vote without consequence.
Evidence of Widespread Throttling
Under the new rules, Internet providers can throttle, or slow, specific Internet traffic as long as they disclose their practices to consumers. Evidence suggests that throttling practices are already in motion, although the major providers deny having made any changes in internet access.
A recent university study determined that wireless Internet Service Providers are slowing down traffic, or throttling, service to video-heavy traffic like YouTube, Netflix, Amazon Prime, and NBC Sports. For example, in one recent test, Netflix speeds were 1.77 megabits per second on T-Mobile, compared with the 6.62 megabits-per-second speed available to other traffic on the network at the same time. Post-repeal, this is legal, as long as the customers are notified in their Terms of Service.
California Firefighters Equipment Rendered Useless
The highly publicized story of Verizon throttling a Northern California fire department’s internet service to a crawl exemplifies the need for net neutrality. During the largest wildfire in state history, Verizon slowed wireless data speeds so much that some of the high-tech tracking equipment used to keep track of people, fires, and resources was useless. The department had an “unlimited” plan that slowed data transmission after a certain threshold. Data rates were reduced to 1/200th of the typical speed, making it impossible for the department to function effectively.
Verizon did not lift the data caps until the fire department paid for a more expensive plan, leaving the firefighters to use personal devices and beg for access from other agencies to stay in communication. Forcing the department to upgrade their service to a more expensive plan would not have passed muster legally before the repeal, but the FCC did comment, “we strongly encourage communications providers to waive data allotments in situations involving emergency response.”
In late August, consumer groups and tech companies outlined legal arguments to the federal appeals court in Washington in an attempt to undo the FCC’s repeal of net neutrality. Both the firefighter example and the university study data were submitted as data backing up the appeal. The FCC must file its response to the court in October.
The Congressional Review Act resolution to reverse the FCC’s repeal of net neutrality passed in the Senate, but now needs 215 signatures on a discharge petition in the House of Representatives to force a vote on the floor. Signatures from 170 members of Congress have been collected, including one from a Republican Congress member, Rep. Mike Coffman in Colorado.
States Pass Individual Bills
Last week, California passed the most stringent net neutrality bill in the nation. If signed by the Governor before the end of September, the bill would ban internet providers from blocking and throttling legal content and prioritizing some sites and services over others. It is now considered the gold standard for how to craft a bill that essentially restores the net neutrality rules that previously existed.
Although 30 states have Net Neutrality proposals on the books, most states have been reluctant to attempt sweeping legislation like California’s because the FCC included specific language in the repeal that prohibited states from creating net neutrality laws.
Oregon, Vermont, and Washington have enacted net neutrality legislation, and Governors in six states have issued executive orders, but these are less comprehensive than the new California law. California’s not only restores 2015-era neutrality but is the first to prohibit zero-rating programs which allocate free data to specific apps.
With more residents than any other state, California’s new law covering 40 million people demands that broadband providers pay attention. The state had 12 million landlines and fixed wireless subscribers and 25 million wireless subscribers as of December 2016. If the ISPs choose not to comply with the west coast demands, they’ll have to enforce different administrative policies state by state. Depending on the outcome of a likely lawsuit over the prohibition of state laws regarding net neutrality, it’s possible that Internet providers will adopt the California practice across the board to avoid administrative headaches.
It’s a waiting game
Consumer advocates are engaged in several avenues to restore Net Neutrality, from passing new state laws to appealing the original ruling. Congress may overturn the decision based on FCC Chair Ajit Pai purposely misleading the public about their chance to have input, or enough House members may sign on to force a vote on the issue. It’s also possible, however unlikely that Internet providers will give in and comply with the west coast standards.
It’s evident that throttling of data exists and in some situations is harmful to public safety. What remains is waiting for the outcome of various lawsuits or an act of Congress.
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