The Obama-era “net neutrality” regulations are one step closer to being undone. Last Thursday, the Federal Communications Commission Chairman, Ajit Pai, who was appointed by President Donald J. Trump this January, released the final draft of a plan to repeal net neutrality protections.
Net neutrality is the principle that all the internet service providers should treat all the data online the same and not discriminate or charge differently based on any criteria. The original Obama administration guidelines prohibited large internet service companies like AT&T and Comcast from blocking or slowing down the delivery of content from any website. Furthermore, the guidelines prevented service providers from charging extra fees for high-speed streaming or other services.
If the existing rules are repealed, some telecom companies claim they would be able to offer a wider range of internet service options at higher and lower price points, increasing consumer choice. Service providers say the new rules will still require them to be transparent about their practices so that customers can have a clear idea of what is the best plan for themselves.
However, the new freedoms for service providers may not result in as much flexibility for consumers as the companies claim. Under the new regulations, internet service providers would be able to charge customers more for certain content and censor others as they wish. In fact, repealing the Obama-era rules hands the control of information and entertainment to the giant internet companies.
According to a statement by democratic FCC commissioner Mignon Clyburn, Pai’s new regulation is “this most unwelcomed #ThanksgivingFail is simply a giveaway to the nation’s largest communication companies, at the expense of consumers and innovation.” The new regulation would potentially curb the innovative development of start-up websites, as their viewers may be subject to higher fees to view the site, and internet service providers will be able to block the site all together if they choose to do so.
“Under my proposal, the federal government will stop micromanaging the internet,” said Mr. Pai in a statement. Pai argues that rolling back the current regulations could “restore Internet freedom.” It sounds somehow dubious when it comes to the term “freedom.” How could it possibly be free when the content you are reading online is potentially selected by the broadband you are using rather than yourself?
The online experience without net neutrality will most likely not be the same as the one we are used to nowadays. Repealing net neutrality adds more to the control of internet service providers and allow for selective media coverage of important events. Now, the voices favored by the institutions controlling internet services could be legally amplified, while dissenting voices could be shut down or have less exposure to the public if service providers so please.
The discriminative nature of the proposal has generated controversy not only on the consumer side but also among some telecom companies which are supposed to benefit from it. Internet giants including Netflix and Facebook publicly opposed the plan and emphasized the undesirable consequences that would result from the violation of the principle of net neutrality.
“We are disappointed that the proposal announced today by the FCC fails to maintain the strong net neutrality protections that will ensure the internet remains open for everyone,” said Erin Egan, a vice president at Facebook.
The Internet Association, as one of tech industry’s leading representatives, also criticized Pai’s plan, saying that it “defies the wills of millions of Americans.”
Although the new FCC guidelines regarding net neutrality have some potentially positive aspects, the public deserves the right to an unbiased and comprehensive online environment. It will be harder to build a thriving business online with desirable content with net neutrality is gone.
As former FCC Commissioner Michael Copps said in an interview with The Nation, “there can be no truly open internet without net neutrality.” The FCC should work for the public’s interest rather than a few telecom companies.