In 2015, the United States’ Federal Communications Commission (FCC) ruled in favour of net neutrality. This was a move supported by the mass majority of Democrats and Republicans alike, and was a clear victory for many proponents of a free internet.

On December 14, 2017, under the lead of new FCC Chair Ajit Pai, net neutrality was repealed.

A pamphlet features FCC Chair Ajit Pai and warns that he is “trying to destroy net neutrality by giving cable companies the power to control content on the Internet.” (Photo by Anne Meador)

Ironically, Pai claimed this was due to his commitment to a “free and open internet.” A poll found 75 per cent of Republican voters and 89 per cent of Democratic voters were clearly against this. In American public opinion, the idea of net neutrality is not very contentious. So why was net neutrality scrapped, and what can it mean both inside and outside America?

Net neutrality is the idea that internet service providers (ISPs) like Verizon, Comcast, and Time Warner, among others, cannot impose different speeds when users access different sites. When net neutrality is enforced, one megabyte of data from Facebook will take just as long to download as one megabyte of data from Netflix. ISPs do not control what users see or do online.

Comcast is one of the major internet service providers in America that may use the repeal of net neutrality to its advantage.
(Photo by Mike Mozart)

Without laws requiring ISPs to uphold net neutrality, ISPs have the ability to speed up access to certain sites and slow down or even block access to others. Under such a system, users and or websites will pay extra fees to ISPs so a site can be prioritized for the “fast lane,” while other sites will have their access speeds reduced. ISPs will have total control over what can or cannot be seen online, and can control access to web traffic as they see fit.

Sounds like an exaggeration, doesn’t it? The reality is this already happened. In 2013 and 2014, Comcast customers noticed that their Netflix streams experienced a significant drop in quality. Typically, ISPs would open up new ports for web traffic when a specific site’s traffic experienced a bottleneck, in order to alleviate traffic congestion. Comcast did not do it in this case until Netflix agreed to pay an undisclosed amount of money to Comcast.

Once the transaction was complete, Netflix streaming speeds returned to normal. This sets a worrying precedent. Such a business model is akin to a mailman refusing to deliver letters from certain companies unless additional compensation is provided. Will sites be obligated to pay ISPs money in the future just so their sites can be accessed at reasonable speeds?

In a world increasingly reliant on the internet, FCC’s repeal of net neutrality is worrying. This move is inherently anti-competitive because established sites will have sufficient financial resources for paid prioritization, while smaller services and start-ups will have trouble gaining web traffic. The internet is a rapidly-evolving technology where innovative start-ups can quickly overtake pre-existing entities. A lack of net neutrality may create a financial barrier for emerging websites. Without net neutrality, websites will be dominant not through creativity, utility and innovation, but through bidding wars for prioritization of web traffic.

The overwhelming bipartisan majority of Americans support net neutrality. In fact, 83 per cent of the population did not approve of FCC’s proposal to repeal net neutrality. Despite this, Pai was resolute on repealing net neutrality, saying the internet worked just fine before 2015, when net neutrality rules were cemented.

Sounds like an exaggeration, doesn’t it? The reality is this already happened.

Pai’s belief that repealing net neutrality would not have an effect on the internet contradicts the fact that the telecom industry’s lobbying groups spent $101 million on Congress, in part to get net neutrality repealed. It is clear that ISPs have a lot to gain from having net neutrality repealed, and FCC’s compliance with their intentions is a clear case of money trumping democracy.

With net neutrality now repealed in America, ISPs may seek ways to throttle specific web traffic to increase revenue. Content providers now have the ability to hold content hostage unless a ransom is provided. Websites may have to pay extra to ISPs just to have their web traffic prioritized. This extra cost will ultimately be burdened by consumers. Web services such as YouTube, Google, Facebook, Netflix, Snapchat and Twitter are all based in America. Extra costs incurred to them to get their content to American audience could be passed along to consumers all over the world.

If American ISPs do decide to fully commit to a content delivery model with a prioritized “fast lane,” ISPs in other countries without net neutrality may feel incentivized to follow suit. The result will be higher costs for content creators and consumers alike – just because internet service providers can.

By Jim Chen

Please note that opinions expressed are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the views and values of The Blank Page.