The FCC votes in days and likely will repeal Obama-era rules on Net Neutrality, the doctrine which says that all legal Internet traffic should be equally accessible. What comes next?
Next week, the FCC is set to repeal the concept of Net Neutrality. While the effects of that decision are unknown, it is easy to anticipate some of the possibilities — and none of them are good. So we’re going to talk about the very idea of Net Neutrality, and then discuss the possible ramifications of its repeal.
What Exactly Is “Net Neutrality”?
Believe it or not, Merriam-Webster has an official definition of the term:
[T]he idea, principle, or requirement that Internet service providers should or must treat all Internet data as the same regardless of its kind, source, or destination
So that gives us a good starting point for our discussion. What we are talking about is the idea that any legal Internet traffic, no matter what it is, should be able to reach its destination without anyone putting an obstruction or bottleneck in its path. So, for example, if I want to watch Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen on Netflix, the concept of Net Neutrality means that neither my ISP nor a company who owns a specific server between my home and Netflix can either block or slow down that movie from reaching me just because they don’t like Transformers. It means that you can stream Marilyn Manson albums over your favorite music service without them being blocked or slowed down. It means that all of us can read blogs and news from whatever sources we want, without the fear of some middleman cutting off our access, or degrading our ability to access it in favor of some other news source. That, in a nutshell, is what the FCC is voting to revoke from us.
There are multiple reasons that the Net Neutrality principle is important; you can probably pick up on some of them from this description, but let’s spell some of them out. Netflix, as we all know, is basically the resource for streaming media. TV shows, movies, and even Netflix original series are now a part of their catalog. Right now, with Net Neutrality in place, it is much harder for any entity to legally throttle (that is, slow down) their ability to stream to a particular user, or to block Netflix streams altogether.
But what if this goes away as is widely anticipated? It’s no secret that big ISPs such as Comcast have their own streamable catalogs of content and would love to have their subscribers use them more and more, in lieu of Netflix or similar offerings. So what if Net Neutrality disappears? Your Internet provider would have the legal right to either dramatically impede your access to stream a Netflix title, or to block access altogether. The idea, of course, would be to get you to pay more to the ISP — either to sign up for a similar-but-likely-inferior service they may be offering, or to pay them directly for access to the Netflix service you already pay for — in essence paying twice for the same service.
For Internet users in Portugal, this is already their reality:
So what are we seeing here? These are add-on data packages that a customer can buy in addition to their regular Internet access. Let’s take a look at a couple of these. What if a customer of this ISP wants to access basic social networking, such as Twitter or Facebook? Access to these sites is in the “Social” package in the grid above, and it costs another 4.99 Euros per month. What about YouTube or Twitch for video streaming services? Check out the “Video” pack for another 4.99 Euros. E-mail? Well, that’s in another package at — you guessed it — 4.99 Euros per month. That’s about another 15 Euros per month just for access to a few very specific Web sites! Remember: We haven’t even talked about the actual Internet subscription itself. Oh, and also notice the final category: “MEO.” These applications are free with the subscription; presumably, they are the ISP’s own offerings. Note also that these plans appear to only provide a total of 10 GB of data per month, which is an extremely low data cap for today’s Internet age. More on why this is a bad idea from the source of that image:
Net-neutrality advocates argue that this kind of model is dangerous because it risks creating a two-tier system that harms competition — people will just use the big-name apps included in the bundles they pay for, while upstart challengers will be left out in the cold.
For example: If you love watching videos, and Netflix is included in the video bundle but Hulu isn’t, you’re likely to try to save money by using only Netflix, making it harder for its competitors.
And without net neutrality, big-name apps could theoretically even pay telecoms firms for preferential access, offering them money — and smaller companies just couldn’t compete with that. (It’s not clear whether any of the companies named above have paid for preferential access.) An ISP could even refuse to grant access to an app at all unless they paid up.
In essence, the end of Net Neutrality could mean that ISPs will either block or degrade access to content they don’t personally approve of — or whose owners refuse to pay for preferential access to their customers. All of this means less choice and higher prices for consumers, some of whom may be priced out of access to certain content altogether should this become a reality.
Freedom of Speech Also at Stake
Journalist Sarah Kendzior recently wrote about what Net Neutrality means to “The Resistance,” the movement seeking to oppose the arguably authoritarian form of governance enacted by the Trump Administration. Kendzior writes in part:
The threat to net neutrality highlights the reliance on social media and an independent press for political organizing in the digital age. Should net neutrality be eliminated, those avenues will likely become curtailed for much of the public or driven out of business due to loss of revenue. Without the means to freely communicate online, citizens will be far less able to challenge the administration. It doesn’t matter what cause someone prioritizes: The elimination of net neutrality will impede the ability to understand the cause, discuss it and organize around it.
The erosion of freedom of speech and assembly has always been a hallmark of dictatorship, one traditionally associated with formal decrees of censorship or dramatic acts like book burning. In Mr.Trump’s corporatized administration, overt state censorship is unnecessary and undesirable: Instead, technology can be manipulated while excessive litigation can force the media into self-censorship. The subtler gesture of removing the neutrality of the internet allows constitutional rights to remain intact on paper but demolished in practice.
The FCC’s proposed rollback of net neutrality arrives with two other measures that mark the beginning of a more abjectly fascist phase for the United States — a systemic transformation that will likely endure after Trump leaves office. Along with the loss of a free internet, we face the packing of the courts with conservative extremists who legal scholars worry will decimate constitutional rights. Many of these judicial appointments are for a lifetime, curbing civil liberties for generations to come.
In essence, the end of Net Neutrality becomes yet another weapon the Trump Administration can wield against the populace, in addition to their constant undermining of the free press, attempts to increase taxes and steal health care away from the middle and lower classes, retaliation against Robert Mueller’s investigation of the Russia scandal, and oppression of minorities. We are already seeing democracy being dismantled by the very people who are supposed to uphold it; the end of Net Neutrality would be a crippling setback on the populace to demonstrate against this oppression.
Let’s return briefly to our example of Portugal’s ISP and their idea that their customers should pay a premium just to use social media. Facebook, as we already know, is the biggest social presence on the entire Internet. While not as massive as Facebook, Twitter also boasts an active user base of its own. Suppose, then, that a majority of Americans, with the loss of Net Neutrality, are now required to pay another $5 or $10 per month for access to social media Web sites. No big deal, right? Until you factor in those people for whom even a few extra dollars means less gas for the car to go to work, or a little less food for their kids. Those who cannot fit that into their budgets, simply won’t have their voices heard. And in an age where the Internet is used for everything from entertainment to determining what you need to buy at the grocery store, this is a crippling handicap.
But let’s look at this from another angle: This would be an effective tax on our First Amendment rights! In gaming, there’s a term known as “pay to win,” which is a concept used to describe games where, in order to get an advantage, you have to spend real-world money on something you might not be able to get through simply playing the game; opting to not buy may mean never advancing in the game — or at least advancing at an incredibly slow pace. Ending Net Neutrality has the potential to usher in a sort of “pay to speak” structure to our Internet, where only those with the cash to pay higher access fees will have the right to say anything on-line; those who cannot will be priced out of the First Amendment — at least in terms of digital communication. But since on-line is where the dialogue is happening, that would be the net result.
And it wouldn’t just be detractors of the current administration whose voices would be silenced. Everyone, regardless of political affiliation, has the potential to be silenced through the end of Net Neutrality. Poverty does not discriminate; neither does the theft of our constitutional rights. When looking at the end of Net Neutrality, we cannot only focus on this one idea; we have to focus on the domino effect this is likely to produce. The end result is a potential crippling of our rights to speak out and to organize protests in the digital age, and a far greater financial barrier to access some of the most popular content on-line. Even the types of journalism we can access has the potential to be threatened. Can you imagine paying separate subscription fees to access blogs, newspapers, and traditional outlets such as CNN, MSNBC, or Fox News on-line?
But here’s the biggest issue of all: It is practically a foregone conclusion that the FCC will repeal Net Neutrality, regardless of how many people speak out against it. FCC chairman Ajit Pai recently attacked actress Alyssa Milano on her Twitter account for speaking out about Net Neutrality. Milano laid out a pretty thorough case for why Net Neutrality is so important to America.
But this may not be enough. The FCC may have become besieged with fake comments regarding the Net Neutrality debate in advance of next week’s vote. New York Attorney General Eric Shneidermann opened an investigation to determine if New York residents may have had their names falsely attached to some of these comments. But in a sign of where the current FCC’s loyalties lie, they are refusing to assist in that investigation. And, to add insult to injury, the FCC has decided to ignore most public comments on Net Neutrality anyway, unless they contain an actual legal argument:
But even ignoring the potential spam, the commission said it didn’t really care about the public’s opinion on net neutrality unless it was phrased in unique legal terms. The vast majority of the 22 million comments were form letters, the official said, and unless those letters introduced new facts into the record or made serious legal arguments, they didn’t have much bearing on the decision. The commission didn’t care about comments that were only stating opinion.
So we are left facing a potentially ugly new reality, one without Net Neutrality protecting our rights to access the information we seek without technological or even financial barriers being imposed upon us. The FCC votes on 12–14–2017, and while we can continue besieging the FCC and Congressional representatives with opposition, we are dealing with an administration which does not entertain dissent in any capacity. We must be ready for what comes next, and assume that Net Neutrality is finished — at least for now. But while we do have the ability to speak out freely on-line, we must continue to do so. Because while this battle is likely over, the war for our country’s future will wage on.