Monday, June 11, is the first day of the post–net neutrality internet. In December, the Federal Communications Commission voted to repeal the Obama-era rules that prohibit internet companies from slowing down or speeding up access to certain websites, but it took about six months for the repeal to get a signoff from the Office of Management and Budget and for the new rules to be published in the federal register. Beginning, well, now, your internet access could—emphasis on could—feel dramatically different than it did yesterday.
Under the new network neutrality rules, internet service providers like Comcast, Verizon, and AT&T are allowed to throttle traffic that travels over their network or even block access to entire websites as long as the companies alert subscribers in their terms of service that they reserve the right to do so. But since most people in the United States don’t have more than one or two internet providers to choose from for broadband service, if users don’t wish to accept those terms, many won’t have anywhere else to go for their internet. Without net neutrality rules stopping them, internet providers will also be able to charge websites a fee to reach users faster.
Those internet providers stand to win the most from the net neutrality repeal, since they’ll be able to operate what is essentially a two-way toll, collecting money from both subscribers and websites that want priority access to users. Already-powerful, deep-pocketed companies that can afford to pay for the fast-lane service like Facebook or Yelp could wind up in a position to set the price, relegating smaller companies, nonprofits, or struggling news organizations to what is, in effect, a slower internet.
The FCC’s move to rescind the Obama-era open-internet protections, however, is facing serious challenges, both from multiple lawsuits expected to be filed in the coming days against the repeal as well as from Congress, where Democratic lawmakers have led an effort to undo the FCC’s actions. In May, every Senate Democrat and three Republicans—Sens. Susan Collins of Maine, John Kennedy of Louisiana, and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska—voted to reverse the net neutrality repeal with a Congressional Review Act resolution, which is used to overturn or eliminate a federal agency’s action. Congressional Republicans have used the same process to reverse more than a dozen regulatory actions since Donald Trump won the election in 2016—but those were rules passed under President Obama. In order for the resolution to go into effect, a simple majority in the House also has to vote to undo the repeal, and President Trump has to sign it. But in the House, Republicans outnumber Democrats 235–193, meaning more than 20 Republicans would have to get on board if every Democrat voted in favor.
Advocacy organizations that opposed the net neutrality repeal, like the National Hispanic Media Coalition and Free Press, are also planning to sue, as well as a coalition of 22 state attorneys general, over what they claim was a corrupt rule-making process in the months leading up to the final vote. Although more than 23 million comments were submitted on the net neutrality repeal, the overwhelming majority of which in favor of keeping the open-internet regulations, many of those comments were faked, submitted using stolen identities and the names of dead people, or filed by bots, not people. Hundreds of thousands of comments were filed using Russian email addresses, which were mostly in favor of rescinding the internet rules. The FCC’s online public input system was even hit last year by a mysterious cyberattack, which is currently the subject of an ongoing federal investigation. The FCC is required by law to hold a fair process for collecting feedback from the public when passing major new regulations, which the agency’s nonelected commissioners are supposed to use to inform the writing of new rules to help ensure the agency is acting in the interest of the public. But with so many problems with the comment process, those planning to sue the FCC may have a strong case that the agency’s push to undo the net neutrality protections wasn’t aboveboard.
Still, just because the FCC is going to get sued doesn’t mean a judge will issue an injunction, and in the interim, internet providers will be able to throttle traffic and block access to websites as they wish. While it’s unlikely internet providers are going to significantly change your internet experience overnight or in any overt way anytime soon, companies may well start to toy with connection speeds in more elusive ways. If Comcast, for example, makes a special deal to speed up their customers’ access to Netflix, that change in load times may be subtle. But it will still give Netflix an added boost over a competitor like Hulu, inspiring its subscribers to jump ship. If the New York Times loads faster than your local newspaper’s website, it may be a reason for you to stop checking in regularly on its hometown reporting. If Yelp always loads even just a little faster than your favorite restaurants’ websites tend to, those local businesses could see such a dip in traffic that they eventually decide to abandon their private websites all together and host everything on Yelp. But at first, users might not notice what’s happening, allowing internet providers to make the argument that an internet without network neutrality isn’t as big a deal as some advocates have made it out to be.
These examples may be the worst-case scenario for what might happen in the near future, but they’re by no means as bad as it could get. Take what happened in one particularly egregious scenario in Canada in 2005, when the telecom Telus blocked access to a union website that promoted a labor strike against the internet provider. Then there was what happened in 2012 in the U.S., when AT&T announced it would block U.S. users’ access to FaceTime on iPhones unless they paid for a higher data plan; the company reversed course after consumer advocates sent complaints to the FCC. With the new FCC rules, though, companies will be able to do any of these things as long as they say they might in their terms of service.
The internet is already massively concentrated, with just a few platforms commanding the majority of people’s time online. Once those entrenched powers can start to set the price for priority service, they stand to become even more powerful. Those smaller websites that are taking longer to load may slowly start to disappear too, and the great promise of the internet—that there’s no telling what someone might create next—may become an even more distant dream.
So be on the lookout Monday and over the next few weeks for notices from your internet service provider with changes to your terms of service. If you get an email from Comcast saying it’s updated its policies, don’t immediately delete it. Take a look: Nestled inside may well be the first strikes against net neutrality. But the fight to bring the internet rules back from the dead is still ongoing. In order for those working for a more open internet to have any chance at success, users are going to have to continue to care and speak out about why open-internet protections matter to them—even, perhaps especially, if it’s not immediately clear anything has changed.
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