The Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) vote this Thursday, December 14th on whether or not to repeal the Obama-supported net neutrality rules that currently prevent powerful internet service providers (ISPs) like Verizon, Comcast, and AT&T from filtering the internet content their customers receive will have serious consequences for consumers. A repeal, led by Trump’s FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, a former Verizon lawyer, will harm consumers far beyond their pocketbooks.
The current net neutrality rules prevent broadband providers from playing a game of internet extortion with customers through blocking, slowing, or creating “fast lanes” for certain internet content. With the demise of net neutrality, ISPs will be free to charge consumers more for the same internet experience they have now by creating, for example, high-speed “fast-lane” bundles to some of the most popular sites—“Get fast access to Facebook, Google, Netflix, and YouTube for only $10 more per month!—or, for example, by blocking or slowing down access to certain sites until a “full access” fee is paid. Or your ISP may not even offer access to all of the internet. The bottom line: consumers should prepare themselves to pay more for less in 2018.
But a higher internet bill pales to the biggest danger raised by the end of net neutrality: by allowing a few giant corporations to be the gatekeepers of internet content, the internet will become just another means for big money, politics, and greed to control the information to which consumers will have access.
The FCC created the current net neutrality rules in 2015 because the prior administration understood the dangers of allowing only a few giant corporations to control the content reaching consumers. Now, the Republican-controlled FCC is set to roll back those rules, encouraging a damaging “pay-to-play” environment that will stifle competition and shut out smaller businesses that can’t afford to pay ISPs for fast access (or access at all). What’s even more alarming is that the repeal could lead to ISPs that create their own content giving themselves preferential treatment over competing businesses. Big business is certainly not known for an altruistic approach to competition and in fact, there will essentially be nothing to stop deep-pocketed corporations from paying ISPs to block competing businesses from accessing profitable information and entertainment internet “fast lanes.”
The FCC’s vote to scrap net neutrality is ironic given the FCC’s stated purpose of “[s]upporting the nation's economy by ensuring an appropriate competitive framework for the unfolding of the communications revolution.” Mr. Pai, however, suggests that anti-competitive conduct will be taken care of by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) on the back end; but why should the FTC have to shoulder the added burden of policing anti-competitive conduct that is now made all the more enticing by the end of net neutrality? And while the FCC and the FTC just announced a so-called “partnership” to police the internet after net neutrality is repealed, some say that the FTC is not equipped to handle the task.
Consumer groups are also skeptical of the “honor system” approach that allows broadband providers to slow or speed up web access as long as they are transparent about it. “Not only is the FCC eliminating basic net neutrality rules,” says Chris Lewis, Vice President of the consumer group, Public Knowledge, “but it’s joining forces with the FTC to say it will only act when a broadband provider is deceiving the public. This gives free reign to broadband providers to block or throttle your broadband service as long as they inform you of it.”
Mr. Lewis has it right. After many years fighting against giant corporations in courtrooms across America, I can tell you that transparency is never the name of the game when corporate money is involved. In the end, contrary to what Mr. Pai has suggested, consumers are likely to face fewer choices in the coming months and years.
And this lack of choice has far darker consequences for American consumers. With behemoth corporations controlling internet access---and now controlling the actual content---the information, news, entertainment, and opinions consumers will receive in the future will invariably be skewed, biased, limited, and even blocked. Scrapping the current net neutrality rules means there is nothing to prevent ISPs from blocking or limiting consumer access to certain news sources, political sources, legal sources, consumer advocate sources, or other lawful content sources. ISPs will now be able to effectively censor platforms, positions, and political views with which it or its biggest business partners do not agree---all in the name of innovation and corporate profits. Quite literally, American consumers are facing the demise of the open internet, which represents a serious danger to free and open public discourse.
For now, we must all work to make sure this affront to consumer rights and attack on the open internet is short-lived. Consumers can continue to contact their representatives in Congress. They can continue to provide comments to the FCC. They can continue to join and support groups that fight for consumer rights. And in the coming months as ISPs begin making service changes, consumers must be vigilant in recognizing and identifying anti-competitive behavior and discriminatory and biased content shifts.
With great power comes great responsibility. The power being given by the FCC to broadband providers is unlikely to be wielded responsibly. As with most abuses of corporate and government power, it will be the American consumer who is harmed in the process.