If you woke up with a chill in your bones and a faint sense of dread, it could be this: On Thursday, the Federal Communications Commission decided to give internet service providers, like AT&T, Comcast and Verizon, the power to meddle with your internet traffic.
Among other things, the decision permits the companies to discriminate against data that flows along their networks. That means Comcast could theoretically charge customers more if they watch a lot of Netflix, or potentially serve Netflix data at a slower speed. Internet service providers, or ISPs, had been accused of doing exactly that, before net neutrality rules were in place.
Or Verizon, which owns HuffPost’s parent company Oath, could offer content it owns at faster speeds than content produced by rivals. (For the record, HuffPost’s staff is represented by Writers Guild of America, East, which supports net neutrality and opposed its repeal.)
Or AT&T could decide that Amazon ― or some fledgling tech startup that doesn’t have billions of dollars lying around ― isn’t pulling its fair share and demand the company pay up or be forced into an internet slow lane.
While most ISPs have pledged to uphold the principles of net neutrality and not to prioritize web traffic in this manner, those pledges don’t mean much beyond marketing and public relations, and they can change. Comcast quietly adjusted its commitment just last week, dropping language that had promised “no paid prioritization.”
“This transition will take time to play out.”
It’s hard to know exactly what the ISPs have in store for us, and it’s unclear when changes will happen. But because most consumers have few ISP choices, they’re stuck with the companies’ monopolistic, anti-competitive presence.
Analysts at Forrester, a technology market researcher, expect changes will start gradually, and will affect pricing at the consumer level more than for larger businesses.
“Pricing models will change,” Forrester Research director Glenn O’Donnell predicted in a blog post. “Educate yourself on how the various carriers will alter their pricing and what you get for that money. We do expect bundling (e.g. social media package, streaming video package, gaming package) as additions to basic services. If you don’t buy the bundle, those features you want may be slower – intentionally.
“The world as you knew it yesterday did not suddenly descend into chaos,” O’Donnell added. “This transition will take time to play out.”
“If you don’t buy the bundle, those features you want may be slower – intentionally.”
It’s important to note that just because the FCC repealed net neutrality rules doesn’t mean the battle is over ― only that it now moves to Congress and the courts.
That means the FCC ruling could be overturned, so ISPs may hesitate to push big changes immediately, fearing whiplash.
“This is an agency regulatory change, not a law passed by the U.S. Congress,” a Forrester analyst report explains. “It may be challenged in court, kicked down the road a while, or overturned by the next administration.”
After the FCC decision, Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) joined 15 other senators to contest the ruling via a Congressional Review Act resolution. Democrats and some Republicans have voiced skepticism about the FCC decision, and New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman has pledged a legal challenge.
If you’re interested in reading a slightly more poetic peek into a future without net neutrality, one of the FCC’s two dissenting commissioners, Mignon Clyburn, read this statement before casting her vote:
Many have asked, what happens next? How will all of this – Net Neutrality, my internet experience, look after today? My answer is simple. When the current protections are abandoned, and the rules that have been officially in place since 2015 are repealed, we will have a Cheshire cat version of net neutrality. We will be in a world where regulatory substance fades to black, and all that is left is a broadband provider’s toothy grin and those oh so comforting words: “We have every incentive to do the right thing.” What they will soon have is every incentive to do their own thing.
Now the results of throwing out your Net Neutrality protections may not be felt right away. Most of us will get up tomorrow morning and over the next week, wade through hundreds of headlines, turn away from those endless prognosticators, and submerge ourselves in a sea of holiday bliss. But what we have wrought will one day be apparent and by then, when you really see what has changed, I fear it may be too late to do anything about it, because there will be no agency empowered to address your concerns. This item insidiously ensures the FCC will never be able to fully grasp the harm it may have unleashed on the internet ecosystem. And that inability might lead decision makers to conclude that the next internet startup that failed to flourish and attempted to seek relief simply had a bad business plan, when in fact what was missing was a level playing field online.