Future Tense

Net Neutrality Is Over. Now What?

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai raising a mug to the death of the open internet.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

On Thursday, the Federal Communications Commission voted to enshrine new policies that could radically change the way you use the internet. In a 3–2 vote on party lines, the agency decided to move forward with undoing Obama-era net neutrality rules, which prohibited internet providers, like Comcast or Verizon, from blocking access to websites or charging websites a fee to reach users at faster speeds.

Democratic commissioners who voted against Chairman Ajit Pai’s deregulatory agenda didn’t mince words. “I dissent. I dissent from this fiercely spun, legally lightweight, consumer-harming, corporate-enabling Destroying Internet Freedom Order,” said Commissioner Mignon Clyburn in her opening remarks at Thursday’s FCC meeting before the agency voted to ultimately abandon the net neutrality rules.

“This decision puts the Federal Communications Commission on the wrong side of history, the wrong side of the law, and the wrong side of the American public,” said Democratic Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel in her dissenting remarks.

“The internet is the greatest free market innovation in history,” started Ajit Pai, the Trump-appointed chairman of the FCC in his speech before the final vote to ax net neutrality was finalized. “The main complaint the consumers have about the internet is not and has never been that their internet providers are blocking access to content,” he continued, noting many Americans still don’t have access to the internet, which he contends is the real problem. Pai has repeatedly said that net neutrality dissuades internet providers to invest in building out and expanding their network, yet Comcast, AT&T, and Verizon have all said on investor calls that they’ve been investing more in their networks since the net neutrality rules were orginally passed in 2015.

Pai’s remarks were interrupted by a roughly 15-minute abrupt recess for security reasons. During the recess, reporters and spectators were ordered to clear the room and leave their belongings behind. After the recess, Pai also criticized rhetoric around the net neutrality. “It is not going to kill democracy,” he said. The vote followed Pai’s remarks.

Once the rules are enacted, which could happen as early as January 2018, internet providers can begin blocking access to websites or throttling connection speeds. They’ll just need to be “transparent” about how they are managing traffic on their network, according to the regulations crafted by Chairman Pai. If AT&T says in its user agreement that it may one day decide to block access to Netflix but give free access to HBO, it is free to do so. (And we all know how closely people read user agreements.) Internet providers will be able to set up what is essentially a two-way toll, charging subscribers to access the internet and charging websites to access users.

The most flush internet companies would likely get to set the price for the fast lane, which could relegate most websites—including smaller startups and struggling news organizations—to what is, in effect, a slower internet. This would help further entrench the power of the incumbent internet companies, like Facebook, Netflix, or Google.

Pai’s decision to kill the hard-won net neutrality rules, which have only been in effect since 2015, is sure to be challenged in court by public interest groups, which have been preparing their cases since the FCC released its draft of the rules the week of Thanksgiving. But a court case won’t necessarily stop internet service providers from starting to charge websites for priority access to subscribers—that would require an injunction, and it’s not clear that will happen.

One area where the FCC might face legal pushback is on the process leading up to Thursday’s vote. When the FCC wants to make a significant new policy change, it’s typically required to solicit input from the public to learn how the new rules will affect people and businesses across the country. But after Pai released his proposal to gut net neutrality in May, the public comment process was hit by a mysterious cyberattack, which is currently under a federal investigation. Then there were the public comments. Nearly 23 million comments have been submitted, but huge numbers of them may have been fraudulent. Thousands of bots submitted comments. Others were made under stolen identities (including the names of dead people). Hundreds of thousands came from Russian email addresses, and they mostly happened to be in favor of rescinding the open internet rules. All of these problems led members of Congress, as well as other FCC commissioners, to call for the FCC to delay Thursday’s vote until some of these serious irregularities could be accounted for and the public has a fair shot to weigh in. But that didn’t happen, which could give fuel for lawsuits challenging the net neutrality rollback.

“Federal agencies have to engage in a proper notice and comment process,” said Gaurav Laroia, policy counsel with Free Press, who says his group plans to challenge Pai’s net neutrality order in court. “The FCC has failed to remedy these problems and engage in the comments in a substantive way, which they are required to do.” Commissioner Clyburn noted in her remarks at the FCC meeting Thursday that the new net neutrality rules fail to cite even one of the millions of comments, letters, and calls the FCC received from the public about the repeal of net neutrality will mean for them.

The organic comments from real people, however, overwhelming opposed the FCC’s plan to kill net neutrality. That’s similar to what we saw in 2014 and 2015, when 4 million people weighed in to let the FCC, then led by an Obama-appointed commissioner, know they supported the agency’s proposal to enshrine net neutrality.

Once the rules are enacted, assuming there’s no injunction, it’s unlikely that the internet will change dramatically overnight. Instead, you may start to notice some differences gradually. Yelp might be slower to load than Google. CNN or Fox News might be faster, and thus more accessible, than your local newspaper’s website. Your favorite local restaurant may switch to just hosting its web presence on Yelp entirely instead of having its own website, which might be much slower to load. And before we know it, the internet may start to become a much more boring place, as we navigate away from smaller websites and new startups toward those already powerful platforms that can afford to pay fast-lane prices. One of the great promises of the internet has been that there’s no telling what someone might create next. But if internet providers aren’t required to treat all websites equally, that vibrant future will likely flicker out.