The complicated debate basically boils down to rules governing speed and access to online content, experts explain.
Let’s talk about net neutrality.
The Federal Communications Commission (F.C.C.) is expected to repeal the 2015 rules regulating internet service providers on Dec. 14, but the decades-old debate for and against it gets clouded with legal jargon and partisan rhetoric.
Eddie Hold, the NPD Group’s Connected Intelligence President, and Jonathan Schwantes, the Consumers Union senior policy counsel, break down what’s going on, and why you should care.
What is net neutrality?
It basically dictates that internet service providers (ISPs), often telecommunications companies such as Comcast Xfinity, AT&T Internet and Verizon Fios, must provide customers with the same access to all websites. The monthly fee you pay for internet service connects you to any legal website, app and streaming service that you want – not just those that Verizon or AT&T choose. And the ISP connects you to these apps, sites and streams at the same speed; so Netflix doesn’t run faster than Hulu. In short, the ISP doesn’t give any preferential treatment.
What’s being repealed exactly?
The 2015 Open Internet Order, which was upheld by a Federal appeals court in 2016, spells out the following net neutrality rules:
-No blocking. The ISP can’t block access to any legal website, app, service or non-harmful device with an ability to connect to the web.
-No throttling. The ISP can’t slow down the connection or worsen the quality of the connection to any legal website, app, service or connected device.
–No paid prioritization. ISPs can’t give a website, app, service or device a faster or better internet connection in exchange for payment; in other words, sites and apps can’t pay-to-play, and customers can’t be charged extra for an app or site to connect faster.
–Transparency. ISPs have to reveal their fees, broadband speeds, promotional rates, data caps and allowances, and network management practices to customers.
–Internet conduct rule. ISPs can’t unreasonably interfere with or unreasonably disadvantage consumers’ access to legal online content or sites, or their ability to create content or websites. So they can’t discriminate against legal sites or censor content.
Why is the F.C.C. repealing it?
The new F.C.C. chairman Ajit Pai argues that such “heavy-handed” rules are regulating the internet, which has hurt investment and innovation in building and expanding broadband networks. On Tuesday, Pai released a speech stating that investment in broadband networks declined by $3.6 billion — or more than 5% — over the past two years that the regulations have been in effect. The F.C.C. is also no longer defining the internet as a “telecommunications” utility calling for regulations, but instead an “information service” that requires a lighter touch. “Under my proposal, the federal government will stop micromanaging the internet,” Pai wrote in a statement last week. “Instead, the F.C.C. 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.”
Hold from the NPD Group told Moneyish that, “At the end of the day, no one likes regulation, and more regulation does limit companies from innovation with all of the boxes that you have to check off before you can do anything. And there are likely some silly, dated regulations in the middle of all this slowing down ISPs, and this is where the whole thing gets messy.”
What do critics say?
First, opponents argue that the internet is in fact a telecommunications service because it’s the way many people communicate today. (See: texts, video calls, instant messages, email and internet voice calls, to name a few.) Opponents also argue that net neutrality doesn’t regulate the internet, but rather, access to the internet, to ensure that it stays available to everyone, and not just those who can afford to pay for premium access. Plus, because most people only have one or two ISPs to choose from in their area, the market is not that competitive. So if your internet provider decides to charge more for faster internet access, you’ll probably be forced to pay it because they’re the only game in town.
A recent Consumer Reports survey of 1,000 Americans found that the majority (57%) support the current net neutrality regulations, and an even larger majority (67%) said ISPs shouldn’t be allowed to choose which websites, apps or streaming services their customers can access. So many consumers support keeping the regulations because they are concerned about ISPs blocking or slowing down their access to sites. Yet about a quarter of those surveyed by Consumer Reports had no opinion on the topic, likely because it sounds confusing.
How could this impact your connection speed?
Without regulations requiring ISPs to provide the same connection speed for all, they can strike deals with specific sites or services to grant them faster connections over their competitors; they could favor Netflix over Hulu or Amazon, or let Spotify stream faster than Pandora. “Theoretically, certain apps could perform better, or they could start performing worse,” said Hold. “A cable company providing you internet access would prefer you get your TV content from them, for example, so there is a very high incentive for them to make sure their version of any television apps run very fast and smoothly, compared to their competitors.”
Schwantes likens it to creating an online HOV lane, where a customer or a website who pays for a speedier connection can zip along in the fast lane, while smaller companies or customers who can’t afford premium access get stuck in bumper-to-bumper (or buffer-to-buffer) traffic.
How could this impact what you pay?
The F.C.C. says deregulation will allow internet providers to create new business models with sites, streaming services and apps that could also lower costs for customers, especially if ISPs collect extra money from websites, rather than customers. And this could give you more services and internet speeds to choose from.
But if ISPs charge a fee for sites or apps to get a better or faster internet connection, that cost could be passed on to you. “If a streaming content provider has to pay extra money in order to get priority, they will have to cover that added cost somewhere, so there’s the potential to see the rate of different streaming services go up,” said Hold.
How could this impact internet content?
If the internet opens up to pay-to-play, then the larger companies that can pay for prioritization will perform better than small startups scratching for cash. Or some fear that giving ISPs the freedom to block or throttle a site’s internet connection could nip many startups in the bud. “Imagine if, when YouTube first came out, someone slowed down its internet connection and the videos played terribly. It never would have taken off,” explained Hold. Which is why sites like Google, Facebook and Netflix are coming out in favor of net neutrality, rather than repealing it. (Also, they stream a lot of video, which requires faster internet connections, which they don’t have to pay extra for at the moment.)
“These large companies, love them or hate them, all started small with just a couple of people embracing that innovative, entrepreneurial spirit,” said Hold. “So some people worry that deregulation could go against the way the internet has evolved over time, where anyone stands a chance at creating something new and cool that no one has thought of yet.”
What should you do?
Despite protests planned against the repeal, the F.C.C. will most likely roll back the net neutrality rules next month. The F.C.C. will still require ISPs to reveal any websites that they throttle, block or give paid prioritization to, and it has said the Federal Trade Commission will still police ISPs and take action if companies engage in unfair, deceptive or anticompetitive practices.
If you’re concerned about the price or the speed of your internet service changing, or some of your sites performing worse, read your internet service contract carefully and stay alert. If you are dissatisfied with your service, you’ll have to shop around to see what else is available. “It’s hard to say what’s going to happen a year or two from now. We’ll have to wait and see,” said Hold. “Internet service providers are not necessarily full of bad intentions, and maybe nothing will happen. But it’s smart to read the fine print and stay informed.”
And Pai assured the public on Tuesday that, “We had a free and open Internet for two decades before 2015, and we’ll have a free and open Internet going forward.”
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