Back on December 15, just in time for Christmas, the GOP-dominated Federal Communications Commission (FCC) – in the face of strong opposition from a wide range of groups – voted 3-2 to repeal America’s Obama-era net neutrality rules. Any day now, the repeal will officially come into effect, and the Land of the Free will enter a brave new digital era.
At the time, the FCC announced that the repeal’s date would be April 23, which has obviously just passed.
Although this kills off some rules, most of the country's net neutrality componentry is still hanging on by a bureaucratic thread: the Office of Management and Budget still has to rubber-stamp it, whereupon a final, complete repeal date will emerge. It’s not clear how long this will take.
Although the specifics vary from country to country, the principle of net neutrality guarantees that Internet service providers (ISPs) and government-run agencies must ensure that all legal websites are treated equally, and everyone with an Internet connection can access them.
Net neutrality rules stop ISPs from throttling Internet traffic to certain sites while promoting access to others. It also stops them, in one extreme scenario, from splitting Internet access up into subscription-based packages, with extra money required to “unlock” other sites or services, like video-streaming sites or news pages, or to remove data caps.
Additionally, broadband providers, previously passive transmitters of the Internet, are now able to act more like content managers. This means they could hypothetically block content they simply deem objectionable.
It’s a little unclear what the future holds. Some ISPs may go all-out, and some may barely change, but very few would seriously suggest the Internet will now be a freer place that anyone, regardless of their level of disposable income, can access. Crudely put, ISPs will benefit, but consumers will not.
Major changes aren’t likely to happen immediately post-repeal. Ryan Singel, a media and strategy fellow at Stanford Law School's Center for Internet and Society, told CBS News back in December that we should expect not a sudden violation of the repealed net neutrality principles from ISPs, but a “slow burn”.
Per The Verge, there are signs that some telecommunications companies are already preparing to make their opening moves. AT&T, for example – which publically supports certain aspects of net neutrality but not others – is signaling that certain services will be bequeathed to consumers who pay a little more.
ArsTechnica points out that although current net neutrality rules already allow this type of behavior to take place in certain circumstances, the upcoming repeal will make things far easier for such companies to do.
Could net neutrality be resuscitated? Well, a group of senators back led by the Democrats have introduced a resolution of disapproval under the Congressional Review Act (CRA). CRAs allow Congress to nix new pieces of legislation – including the recent FCC ruling – with a simple majority vote of 51, and this one currently has 50 supporters.
One Republican, Susan Collins, is on board, but they need one more senator to play ball, and time is running short. It’s unlikely to succeed, however, and even if it does, it still needs to pass the currently Republican-dominated House, which it almost certainly won’t – and the President could simply veto the bill anyway.
For the foreseeable future, then, net neutrality in America is dead.