Net neutrality has been on everyone’s minds lately, especially now that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has, as of last week, voted to end the rules that, theoretically at least, ensure a free and open internet. And while alarmist headlines in publications such as the Los Angeles Times, Fox Business, and TechCrunch have all mourned the vote — and indeed, predicted dire consequences for internet users — the reality is far more complicated.
Writing in Forbes, tech expert Nelson Granados lays out the reasons why you should freak out — just yet, anyway — about the supposed end of net neutrality.
The History Of Net Neutrality
As Granados explains, most of the cables, satellites, towers, and other hardware that delivers the internet to your computer or mobile device are owned by a handful of telecom companies: Comcast, Verizon, and AT&T chief among them. Prior to 2015, those companies were governed by existing laws that prohibited anti-competitive behavior in other industries.
“For the most part, this regulatory regime worked. With a handful of exceptions, content providers enjoyed equal access to the internet to distribute their content, and consumers with internet access also enjoyed fair access to the content they wanted.”
In 2015, the Obama administration formally enacted the net neutrality rules that were overturned last week. During those two years, the internet continued to work as it always has.
So What Now?
When Trump appointed Ajit Pai as FCC chairman, many saw the writing on the wall — after all, Pai has been an opponent of net neutrality rules from the beginning.
Enlightening article about the history of the FCC. https://t.co/00lvaXGYIN
— Seth MacFarlane (@SethMacFarlane) December 19, 2017
Theoretically, the end of net neutrality rules means that, for example, Verizon can limit your access to content critical of Verizon, perhaps by slowing your internet connection to an unfavorable blog. Further, as doomsday scenarios postulate, ISPs can charge more for access to certain sites, block them entirely, or basically do whatever they please with your internet access.
But, says Granados, that’s not going to happen.
“The internet as a neutral platform for content providers and consumers has pretty much remained so during three regulatory regimes: One with no specific rules of anti-discriminatory behavior, one with explicit rules, and 2017 with an FCC that had no intention to enforce the rules. So there’s no major reason to fear a doomsday scenario going forward.”
What’s more, ISPs have an extremely good reason for not doing the very things fearmongers say they’re going to do: if it were discovered that AT&T was charging customers more for access to Netflix, for example, the news would blow up on social media, and the company would face a huge public backlash.
“No ISP will be safe from public backlash if it misbehaves.”
Still, The Fight Isn’t Over
Jim Salas, marketing professor at the Pepperdine Graziadio School of Business, says that there are still scenarios that could come to pass. For example, with the exponential increase in the number of video-streaming services, big players in the industry could theoretically buy out bandwidth from ISPs in order to shut down smaller competitors.
Granados says that there’s no simple solution to the net neutrality issue. Neither having a wide-open, no-rules internet marketplace, such as that favored by the Trump administration and Pai, nor a heavy-handed FCC favored by the Obama administration is the solution.
“A set of balanced, light-touch permanent laws enacted by Congress that will bring regulatory stability once and for all, by giving ISPs incentives to be neutral and fair, without discouraging investment in internet infrastructure.”
Granados expects Congress to take up the issue again in 2018; but until then, don’t expect the end of the world. Net neutrality rules might be gone, but net neutrality itself is here to stay — for now.