The Republican head of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), Ajit Pai, announced this week that the agency will seek to fully repeal Obama-era net neutrality rules. In a statement, he claimed that the Democrats imposed “heavy-handed, utility-style” regulations on the Internet, and they needed to be undone.
“The FCC would simply require Internet service providers to be transparent about their practices so that consumers can buy the service plan that’s best for them and entrepreneurs and other small businesses can have the technical information they need to innovate,” Pai said in a statement, as per The Hill.
The vote on the proposal will take place on December 14, but it’s widely expected to be in support of a full repeal as the FCC is Republican-dominated. The name of this initiative, by the way, is “Restoring Internet Freedom”.
Net neutrality, as a basic principle, guarantees that internet service providers (ISP) and government-run agencies ensure that all legal websites are treated equally, and access to them is open to everyone that has a connection to the Web.
Not all countries have it, and Portugal recently made headlines for being a worrying case study of what happens when such laws are circumvented. Although technically bound by the European Union's net neutrality rules, legal loopholes allow businesses there to sometimes ignore them.
A Lisbon-based telecommunications company took advantage of the government’s lackadaisical attitude and experimented with selling mobile Internet access in tiered packages. The cheapest package permits access to the Internet.
Additional payments, however, grant higher data ceilings on other bundles of apps. An extra few euros, for example, would give you greater download data limits on social media apps, but not others, unless you pay more for that package too.
This isn't technically illegal under current US net neutrality laws, but it's application isn't that widespread. Not yet, anyway.
If this system was applied to the Internet in general, you'll end up with a slower or otherwise restricted Internet access unless you or online services agree to spend more – something that properly enforced net neutrality laws would prevent.
Thanks to the Obama administration’s strong support for net neutrality, the US gained some of the best protections in the world back in 2015. It classified broadband as a common carrier under that year’s Open Internet Order, keeping ISPs from cutting off, slowing, or restricting access to the Internet as they see fit.
However, ever since the changing of the guard, the FCC has been seeking to undo these rules, despite nearly 22 million Americans (along with several high-profile Web-based services) writing in to protest such a move.
This will effectively turn the Internet into a product more than a utility. This means that companies or individuals willing to pay more will get an Internet service that’s freer, more accessible, and faster in general.
Played out over time to the extreme, this could create two classes of citizens: one that is rich in money and information, and one that is experiencing a deficit in both. This is exactly what was alluded to by an FCC employee that spoke to reporters over the phone under anonymity.
Last year, the UN Human Rights Council declared that public Internet access should not be disrupted by governments or state-run agencies. The FCC should probably take notice of that.