net neutrality has been overturnedYou’ve likely heard the term net neutrality a lot in recent years, and it’s not likely to go away anytime soon. As of Monday, June 11, the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) “Restoring Internet Freedom” order officially went into effect. This measure repeals rules put into place by the FCC during the Obama administration which regulated the ability of Internet service providers (ISPs) to block, slow or speed up access to specific online services. Proponents of net neutrality claim that without these rules, consumers will no longer have the unhindered ability to choose which services they prefer, as ISPs can create “fast lanes” for services or websites that pay them for the privilege, putting those that can’t or won’t pay to play in the slow lane (or pushing them off the road entirely). Those in favor of net neutrality’s repeal claim that the rules hindered innovation, as investment in improved Internet services like high-speed and broadband networks declined, and the FCC says the repeal will help consumers in the long run. To help you better understand what the repeal of these rules means, what happens next and how it matters to you, we’re breaking down the basics of the neutralization of net neutrality.

What was net neutrality and why was it repealed?

Based on Title II of a law known as the Communications Act of 1934, the Open Internet Order of 2015 established rules for ISPs regarding net neutrality on the Internet. The order reclassified ISPs as common carriers (similar to utilities like electricity), whereas previously they were classified under Title I as information services. This reclassification allowed the FCC to have jurisdiction over ISPs to enforce net neutrality rules. As explained by The Daily Dot, net neutrality is one of the core principles of the Internet, and it states that ISPs should treat all data they deliver to consumers equally. Prior to these rules being put into place, there was nothing stopping an ISP from slowing — or throttling — traffic to one site in favor of another, though for the most part, ISPs abided by this principle on their own. However, the net neutrality rules established in 2015 were meant to ensure that no ISPs could engage in preferential treatment without facing consequences.

Confusing as it might seem that the FCC has pushed to overturn rules set by itself and limit its own scope of authority, it’s helpful to understand that those in charge of the commission change with different federal government administration changes. The vote was 3-2 along party lines to enact the Open Internet Order of 2015 and reclassify ISPs under Title II, and just two years later, the commission voted again to repeal the order in a 3-2 vote split the other way. Current chairman Ajit Pai has been a longstanding opponent of the Title II net neutrality rules, and views the December 2017 vote to overturn them as a victory for consumers. That said, not all FCC commissioners share his views — Democrat Jessica Rosenworcel released a statement on June 11 that decried the decision and predicted bad consequences. Both sides argue for Internet freedom, though both have dissenting views on what a free Internet truly is. Despite attempts by certain members of Congress to pass legislation to save the 2015 rules, ultimately, their efforts were for naught.

What kinds of regulations will take net neutrality’s place?

According to the press release that accompanied the official overturn of net neutrality, the FCC’s order — Restoring Internet Freedom — has three main points that anchor its framework. These are consumer protection, transparency and removing unnecessary regulations to promote broadband investment. We’ll break down what each of these mean.

  • Consumer protection: Part of the repeal of net neutrality means transferring jurisdiction over protecting consumers from poor behavior by ISPs back to the FTC, and from now on, it will be in charge of policing ISPs for anti-competitive actions and unfair or deceptive practices.
  • Transparency: The FCC will retain some regulations toward ISPs — specifically, it requires transparency in the form of publicly disclosing all instances of throttling, blocking or paid prioritization in a manner that is easily accessible by consumers (e.g., published in full view on the ISP website).
  • Removing unnecessary regulations: One of the primary arguments in favor of repealing the 2015 regulations has been the reduction in broadband investment that they caused. In its statement, the FCC cited a 5.6% decrease in broadband network investment overall and also indicated that 80% of the small, fixed wireless companies operating in rural areas of the country, “incurred additional expense in complying with the Title II rules, had delayed or reduced network expansion, had delayed or reduced services and had allocated budget to comply with the rules.”

How will this impact the Internet as we know it?

Ultimately, it’s hard to say, as there are still some legal battles to be fought over this repeal. A lawsuit against the repeal has been brought by more than 20 states, and some states have worked to implement their own net neutrality legislation. Because the FCC’s ruling makes it so that the agency can prevent states from enforcing regulations that are inconsistent with the repeal, it’s likely that some of these clashes will be decided in the courtroom — or with new legislation from Congress. One source quoted by the Washington Post shortly after the repeal vote passed in Dec. 2017 referred to the whole debacle as a “regulatory rollercoaster,” which seems to be a fairly apt description.

As we all know, the Internet did not simply vanish in a puff of smoke when the clock struck 12 o’clock on June 11. For their part, the four big ISPs in the U.S. — AT&T, Charter, Comcast and Verizon — have released statements indicating no immediate plans to institute any kind of blocking or throttling. Three of the four also claimed to have no plans for paid prioritization, though Charter was mum on that issue. While we probably won’t see any changes or announcements relating to the restoration of ISPs’ freedom to throttle, that undoubtedly will not last. In fact, some point to the freshly inked AT&T-Time Warner merger as a sign of what’s to come. Whether we will soon face the reality of an Internet where we have to pay extra to access the websites we currently access for free, equally, is unknown. Consumers who are concerned will have to rally their elected representatives to push for legislation relating to net neutrality — and those who aren’t can, for the time being, sit back and enjoy an Internet without the 2015 rules … at least until the rollercoaster crests the next hill.

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