Today, Federal Communications Commission Chair Ajit Pai is expected to unveil a plan to abandon net neutrality altogether. Pai’s plan will not just do away with the concept entirely but also any concept of the FCC regulating the internet. This is despite the fact that Americans overwhelmingly want net neutrality, and an identity-stealing spambot seems to be the only one in favor of repealing it.
We’ve laid out before the larger effects, but what will this mean for you, should the FCC actually take up Pai’s plan? The short answer is that everything about the internet is about to get worse, and not just for you.
- What is net neutrality? First, a quick reminder: Net neutrality is that the internet treats all traffic the same. Whether it’s your email, a bank’s charges, or an episode of Stranger Things, your internet provider is currently required, at least in theory, to run it at the same speed as everything else.
- Which rules are being removed? First, the FCC is doing away with the legal framework for net neutrality via the FCC. Secondly, it’s doing away with the “general conduct standard,” which is what allows you to report bad behavior from your internet provider to the FCC. Your internet provider won’t be required to tell you that they’re throttling your traffic or that they’re blocking certain websites. In theory, the Federal Trade Commission could enforce rules, but that would essentially work on the honor system.
- What will removing these rules do? Theoretically, it will turn the internet into the Wild West. Internet providers can charge websites for “fast lanes,” block websites altogether, or demand more money out of you to access certain websites. Keep in mind, the vast majority of Americans have no choice of internet provider. So if they suddenly decide you don’t deserve Netflix, there may not be much you can do.
- Can individual states do anything? Yes, they can, and they likely will. Internet providers are absolutely loathed by voters, making them ideal punching bags for politicians. Keep in mind, the FCC is abandoning regulation of the internet completely, and many legal scholars argue that means it can’t pre-empt state-level laws. So instead of one federal standard everybody has to abide by, certain states may have the internet you’ve come to expect while others don’t. It’s also worth remembering that your internet service provider depends on the largesse of municipalities to keep their cables up in the first place, meaning individual cities can also put the screws to internet providers.
- Can Congress do anything? Yes, although internet providers have been lobbying Congress for a sweetheart deal for years. But that’s another option, although it’s difficult to see how the current Congress and administration could find their way to passing the mashed potatoes at the dinner table, let alone any meaningful legislation.
- Can I do anything? You can call your state and federal representatives, of course. Or, you can do what people ignored by the big internet providers do, and just cut them out of the picture completely. That’s an option that intrigues many cities, and with tools like white-space broadband becoming more common, this likely will encourage “municipal internet” initiatives.
There are a lot of reasons net neutrality is a good idea, from the abstract to the concrete. But the simple reality is that if Pai’s plan, which still needs to be voted on, goes through, it will create a vacuum, and it’s one that state governments, attorneys general, and other forces will end up filling.