One day, you fire up your browser and try to login to your favorite streaming service, only to see a message that tells you that accessing this service is not part of your internet bundle. You’re given two options. You can either to pay a premium to access the service in question, or sign up with another service that comes free with your internet package.
Does it sounds unfair? Well, that’s exactly what might happen if the Federal Communication Commission’s plan to repeal net neutrality rules gets a vote of approval. Net neutrality is a set of rules that requires internet service providers (ISPs) to treat all internet traffic equally and refrain from throttling, blocking, slowing down or speeding up traffic to any service. This means ISPs can’t favor their own websites and services or curb access to those of their competitors.
The fate of net neutrality rules, passed under previous FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, have been at the heart of a heated debate since the new chairman, Ajit Pai, has taken over. Advocates for open internet have urged Pai’s to avoid rolling back net neutrality rules. More than 20 million comments were posted on a webpage the FCC had set up to get feedback on the decision. Most of them were in favor of preserving net neutrality (also worth noting is that a considerable number were generated by bots).
Net neutrality requires ISPs to treat all internet traffic equally, ie they can’t favor some services and slow down others
Nonetheless, last week, Pai has decided to go through with the repeal of net neutrality.
“Under my proposal, the federal government will stop micromanaging the internet,” Pai said in a statement. “Instead, the FCC would simply require internet service providers to be transparent about their practices so that consumers can buy the service plan that’s best for them.”
This effectively means leaving matters into the hands of ISPs and trusting they will stay true to the principles of net neutrality. All major providers profess to support keeping the internet open and fair. However, their track record paints a different picture.
For instance, AT&T doesn’t tax its customers’ data plans when they access its DirecTV Now streaming service. Called “zero rating,” this is a practice that pushes customers on metered connections (such as AT&T’s mobile internet service) toward specific services. Verizon exercises zero rating on its Go90 service. Likewise, T-Mobile has arrangements with several streaming services to refrain from counting their traffic against its data limits. Zero rating is effectively giving these broadband services an unfair advantage to pick winners and losers based on their interests.
If net neutrality unravels, you can expect ISPs to test more drastic measures. For instance, a mobile broadband provider might decide to slow or block Skype and Whatsapp services. Another phenomenon that may emerge is “fast lanes,” deals that specific internet companies strike with ISPs to prioritize traffic to their services. Comcast is already hinting at providing paid prioritization options after the repeal of net neutrality rules.
Without net neutrality – expect to pay extra to access your favorite sites and apps
To have a vision of what the internet will look like without net neutrality, you can take a look at Spain and Portugal. For instance, Lisbon-based telecommunications firm MEO gives users optional add-on data bundles for specific apps. It doesn’t block those services, but accessing them without those bundles will be considerably more expensive under the standard package, which will dissuade many customers from accessing them.
The proponents of gutting net neutrality proclaim that regulation will have a negative effect on competition and growth. Without the rules, the market will take care of wrongdoers, and ISPs will lose customers if they start throttling and slowing down popular services.
But the companies who will suffer aren’t Google, Facebook, Microsoft and other multibillion dollar corporations for whom fast lane costs will be a financial footnote. The real losers will be the startups and smaller companies who can’t match the deep pockets of their established competitors.
Like ISPs, big internet companies have a history of using unfair practices to damage their competition. Facebook’s copying of Snapchat’s features and Google’s manipulation of its search results to the detriment of its competitors are prelude to what large tech companies will do when they’ll be given tools such as fast lanes to keep their edge in the competition.
As one writer put it, protecting net neutrality isn’t about saving Netflix but about saving the next Netflix.
Protecting net neutrality isn’t about saving Netflix but about saving the next Netflix
What happens next? FCC has stopped collecting public comments on the ruling, but the actual voting on the plan won’t take place before December 14. Until then, there are a couple of things you can do to help save net neutrality while there’s still time.
Out of the five FCC commissioners who will vote on the ruling, two oppose it, which is one short of blocking it. In an op-ed published in Los Angeles Times, FCC commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, who opposes the rollback of net neutrality rules, calls on the public to “make a ruckus” and to reach out to the rest of the FCC to tell them that “they can’t take away internet openness without a fight.”
Battle for the Net, a group that advocates for net neutrality rules, also provides guidelines on contacting members of the Congress and attending organized protests at Verizon retail stores to send the message to keep the internet open and fair.
In the next few weeks, you can help decide the fate of net neutrality. After that, your internet experience might never be the same.
Image courtesy of USDA