What you need to know about net neutrality

It’s the holiday season, and politics may be banned from the dinner table, but there’s one topic that needs to be discussed — the future of the internet.

You may have increasingly heard the term net neutrality over the past few months. Maybe you rolled your eyes and clicked away, or maybe you thought it doesn’t affect your everyday life. Think again. The Federal Communications Commission has voted to repeal 2015 net neutrality regulations, meaning the open internet we’ve come to know and love could disappear. The vote took place on December 14, and as expected the FCC voted 3-2 along party lines.

Here’s what Net Neutrality is, and what the FCC’s proposal means for it.

What is Net Neutrality?

Net Neutrality means treating everything on the internet equally; it’s a guiding principle that preserves an open internet. You get the same connection speeds, as well as the same access to sites like YouTube and Netflix, with no preferential treatment shown to a specific service by your Internet Service Provider (ISP). That means Verizon or AT&T can’t block or slow access to a site because they don’t like its content, or because it competes with their services.

The FCC adopted strong guidelines in 2015 when it reclassified broadband internet access service as a utility under Title II of the Communications Act, classifying ISPs as “common carriers.” While the FCC did not enforce “utility-style regulations” like pricing regulations or network sharing requirements, it does place ISPs under close governmental oversight to prevent unfair internet practices.

net neutrality memes
Chip Somodevilla/Getty

Major telecom and broadband companies like Verizon, AT&T, and Comcast have strongly opposed this, saying the rules “undermined innovation and investment” — as Kathy Grillo, Verizon’s senior vice president and deputy general counsel, told Digital Trends.

AT&T said the rules created “regulatory uncertainty,” but reaffirmed that “all major ISPs have publicly committed to preserving an open internet, and the proposed transparency rules will require that all ISPs clearly and publicly articulate their internet practices. Any ISP that is so foolish as to seek to engage in gatekeeping will be quickly and decisively called out.”

Technology companies, meanwhile, have largely come out in support of Net Neutrality rules, as have privacy watchdogs and public-interest groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Who is Ajit Pai, and why did the FCC remove these regulations?

Ajit Pai, the current chairman of the FCC, was appointed by President Donald Trump, and is a strong proponent of deregulation. On November 21, Chairman Pai laid out plans to repeal the Obama-era FCC net neutrality rules, and on December 14, the FCC voted in favor of that repeal.

“In 2015, the prior FCC bowed to pressure from President Obama,” Pai said. “On a party-line vote, it imposed heavy-handed, utility-style regulations upon the Internet. That decision was a mistake. It’s depressed investment in building and expanding broadband networks, and deterred innovation.”

It’s all part of Pai’s plan to have the federal government “stop micromanaging the internet.”

Pai’s declaratory ruling, which you can read here, only requires ISPs to be “transparent about their practices.” For example, a provider can slow down or block access to a streaming service like Spotify for any reason — as long as they notify you. It’s all part of Pai’s plan to have the federal government “stop micromanaging the internet.”

The ruling tells state and local governments they cannot create laws regulating broadband service, or craft their own net neutrality laws similar to the 2015 FCC regulations — though several states have banded together to challenge the FCC’s ruling.

“We conclude that regulation of broadband internet access service should be governed principally by a uniform set of federal regulations, rather than by a patchwork of separate state and local requirements,” according to the proposal. “Allowing state and local governments to adopt their own separate requirements, which could impose far greater burdens than the federal regulatory regime, could significantly disrupt the balance we strike here.”

The ruling returns the mantle of protecting online privacy back to the Federal Trade Commission. Your online data and privacy has long been protected by the FTC, but the FCC’s 2015 reclassification of ISPs stripped the FTC from ensuring privacy and security practices.

In 2016, the FCC stepped up to protect consumer online privacy, proposing strong rules requiring ISPs to offer opt-in/opt-out options for selling customer data to third-party services, and requiring ISPs to be more transparent and notify customers in the events of data breaches, and more. Congress voted against these rules before they went into effect, so neither the FCC nor the FTC could create privacy rules for ISPs. Pai’s ruling removed the Title II classification of ISPs as “common carriers,” returning the role back to the FTC.

Okay, but how does this affect me?

Repealing the 2015 FCC regulations makes ISPs powerful gatekeepers of the internet. Critics of the repeal fear that ISPs will block services that compete with their own. For example, Comcast owns many media brands such as NBC and Universal. Without regulation, it could potentially block or slow services that offer its competitor’s TV shows, movies, and other content.

Paid Prioritization might also begin. ISPs may ask Google and Facebook to pay more money to have their sites and services load faster than others. This would chip away at their profits, and would be detrimental to smaller companies that can’t afford to pay ISPs to enter the “fast lane.” These aren’t changes you’ll necessarily see overnight, but they could slowly be introduced by providers.

Despite this, AT&T said it’s committed to offering an open internet. As we mentioned earlier, the company believes “any ISP that is so foolish as to seek to engage in gatekeeping will be quickly and decisively called out.” ISPs say they simply don’t want to be classified as “common carriers” under Title II, so they are not subjected to price regulation.

“At Verizon, we continue to strongly support net neutrality and the open internet,” Grillo told Digital Trends. “Our company operates in virtually every segment of the internet. We continue to believe that users should be able to access the internet when, where, and how they choose, and our customers will continue to do so.”

Charter echoed those sentiments in a report from Fierce Cable. “Charter has had a longstanding commitment to an open internet, which is why we don’t block, throttle or interfere with the lawful activities of our customers,” the company said.

Even Comcast jumped in to reassure customers. Comcast CEO Dave Watson said, “Comcast does not and will not block, throttle, or discriminate against lawful content,” according to the Fierce Cable report. Though we should note, in 2007 Comcast slowed down BitTorrent transfers, a file-sharing client customers were using to download files, music, and movies. The FCC at the time found this practice to be unlawful and sent the broadband provider a cease-and-desist letter, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit rejected the FCC’s action. It’s why the FCC ended up classifying these providers as “common carriers,” so it had the authority to act against corporations participating in unfair internet practices.

“The 2015 Order created bright-line, enforceable net neutrality protections that guarantee consumers access to the entire internet and preserve competition online,” reads a statement from the Internet Association, a collection of Silicon Valley companies such as Google, Facebook, and Microsoft. “This proposal fails to achieve any of these objectives. Consumers have little choice in their ISP, and service providers should not be allowed to use this gatekeeper position at the point of connection to discriminate against websites and apps.”

Even if the ISPs uphold their promise, deregulation will gives them the power to decide. The fate of the open internet will be entirely dependent on the business decisions of the companies that provide us with access to the internet.

Net neutrality has been repealed. What now?

The FCC will likely face many legal challenges over the next year. One such challenge comes from New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who is challenging the vote after his own investigation, which revealed that thousands of fake comments had been left by a bot during the FCC’s public feedback process. Some states — including California and Washington — said they will be creating their own net neutrality laws to keep the internet open. The creation of those laws could instigate a legal response from the FCC.

Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-NY) said he will force a vote on a bill that would reinstate the 2015 net neutrality rules through the Congressional Review Act (CRA). The CRA allows Congress to repeal rules set by federal agencies, but to do this, Schumer would need a majority vote in the House of Representatives and the Senate, according to The Hill.

As far as changes to how we use the internet, we may not see many in the next few weeks. But as time goes on, if the lack of regulation continues, it’s very possible we’ll see major changes to how ISPs handle broadband traffic. So what can you do? Well, apart from continuing to contact state officials and voicing your support for net neutrality, not much. We’ll have to wait and see what the courts and Congress can do to change Pai’s declaratory ruling.

Update: We’ve added details on what has been happening since net neutrality was repealed.