In December it looks likely the FCC, the communications regulator, will repeal almost all of the rules that govern how the internet is controlled in America. The vote will be held on December 14 and could result in yet another Obama-era initiative rolled back under Trump’s regime. The internet as we know it is not broken, however the FCC has seen fit to fix it — and, in turn, looks set to hand an immense amount of power to the small number of internet service providers (ISP) in the U.S. In short, that means that a small number of corporations will be potentially be able to block, slow down, or discriminate against innocuous content.
This is an issue that is knotty and at times dull, but this dullness is precisely why it is important to pay attention. As comedian John Oliver said back in 2014: “The great truth of America is ‘If you want to do something evil, put it inside something boring.” Net neutrality in its simplest form is the belief that all online data should be treated equally. The internet was founded under this principle of fairness and has always operated under it. However, the FCC are looking to break up the system we know and trust, and replace it with a new one in which tech companies and publishers are charged to send their data to the various ISPs. This effectively creates two lanes of the internet, one of which is fast and effective but costly to the companies using it, and a slower lane for those who can’t afford it. It’s the ISPs (that’s Time Warner, ComCast, AT&T, Verizon et al) who have lobbied hard for the repeal. They are the ones that stand to benefit hugely from the proposed changes, flexing their muscle and leaving the lowly customer shouldering the cost.
Read on for a low down on how a post-repeal internet might affect you.
You may have to pay extra to access your favorite websites.
Outside the U.S., where net neutrality laws are looser, some ISPs have established a broken up system of delivering internet access to their users. In Portugal, for example, if you only want to check Twitter, Instagram, and other social network sites, then one provider offers a version of the internet in which only those sites are available for a small fee. This charge then goes up in cost as you add different areas of the web. An extra $5 for Netflix and YouTube, another fee for Skype and other messaging services, and so on. This makes pricing confusing, and hard to compare corporate rivals. As a result you may end up paying more for the exact same service you’re enjoying under net neutrality. And if you can't afford to pay the extra premiums, your access to your relied-upon sites is at risk.
The giants will be left without competition.
An internet without neutrality is one in which the established corporate giants are protected from innovative newcomers. Say, for example, a Netflix-style streaming company with an excellent programming selection starts up. They are going to struggle to establish themselves against the big names when they’re being forced to pay every ISP in America a fee in order to get onto people’s screens. This then creates an internet of haves and have-nots, and makes it difficult for start-ups to grow at speed without major investment.
Your favorite independent artist may struggle to make money.
The rise of the internet has brought with it a wave of independent artists who have established alternative pathways. This allows them to create and find audiences outside of the established record label infrastructures. However, who can say if your favorite cassette label or mixtape host has pockets deep enough to ensure their data flows as effectively as, say, Taylor Swift’s? Selling direct to fans may become cumbersome and problematic, forcing artists into the arms of iTunes and the like, or simply being unable to put their music out the way they want to. Digital music services, such as Bandcamp, would effectively be forced to prioritize serving the ISPs, rather than music fans. Two organizations, the Future of Music Coalition and CASH Music, are rallying musicians and raising awareness of the issue. They have released a statement signed by independent labels, producers, and artists including Priests, Downtown Boys, and Speedy Ortiz voicing their “strong opposition” to the planned repeal.
Remote areas will be worst hit.
Not everyone is lucky enough to be able to stream an entire season of Stranger Things while putting together a Spotify playlist. Take for example those in Winlock, Washington, who recently told The Guardian about their dial up-era internet connections that mean podcasts have to be downloaded overnight. Service providers see little financial return on digging lines and giving access to small local communities, so they don’t bother. On top of repealing net neutrality, the FCC is also looking to revise exactly what is classed as high speed internet and could leave people in remote areas with a slow connection that would technically defined as being equivalent to that enjoyed in major cities. All of which means Winlock’s hopes of ever obtaining high speed internet would be effectively ended if the FCC get their way in December.
Corporate censorship could become a major issue.
Tim Wu, a law professor at Columbia University who came up with the phrase “net neutrality,” has repeatedly warned that companies could soon censor material that is detrimental to their business. He outlined one potential scenario in a November 22 article in the New York Times, writing: “Indeed, a broadband carrier like AT&T, if it wanted, might even practice internet censorship akin to that of the Chinese state, blocking its critics and promoting its own agenda.”
All is not (quite) lost.
Contact your local congress officer and make your feelings about net neutrality known. There is also a protest planned one week before the vote, on December 7, outside Verizon retail stores across the country. Ajit Pai, chairman of the FCC, used to be a top lawyer at Verizon. This means a man with close personal ties to an ISP is pushing though a rule change that stands to make those corporations a fortune. Let that sink in and attend a protest near you.