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Whatever happened to net neutrality?

by Joe Bursley About one year ago on April 23, 2018, the Federal Communication Commission made some drastic changes to net neutrality. This came after the FCC voted to repeal the Obama administration’s internet guidelines in December of 2017. There was much focus on how this repeal would affect the average person’s ability to access the internet freely and openly. Chances are, if you are reading this article right now, your internet access hasn’t changed much. So what exactly was the big fight over net neutrality, what does the repeal actually affect, and what is going to happen next? The future of our internet may (or may not) depend on these answers.

What was net neutrality?

Before we can answer why net neutrality was repealed, it is important to know why and how it was implemented. On principle, net neutrality advocates claim that they support ISPs treating all internet content fairly and evenly regardless of the type of content. In 2015, the Obama FCC led by then-chairman Tom Wheeler implemented new guidelines and regulations in the hopes of achieving this supposedly equitable internet. They did this by voting to classify internet broadband as a public utility under the 1934 Communications Act. In doing so, this granted the U.S. government priority and authority in regulating how mass communication channels, such as radio and TV antenna broadcast airwaves, are used by both public citizens and private companies. Critics of net neutrality argued that having government regulation in something as free and open as the internet was going to stifle innovation and investment in stronger broadband connections to rural communities. They also argued that allowing companies that use more broadband, such as video streaming sites like YouTube and Netflix, would be more appropriate than charging all sites the same amount regardless of data size. Unsurprisingly, such a hot-button political issue quickly fell along partisan lines, with most Democrats supporting the Obama admin’s policies and many Republicans in opposition. Fast forward an election cycle and the new FCC chairman, Ajit Pai, appointed by President Trump, issued a proposal to effectively repeal the net neutrality guidelines and declassify ISPs as utility companies. This proposal was passed in December 2017, with a majority of the net neutrality reversal taking place in April 2018.

How did the internet react?

As it tends to do, internet culture soon went into a frenzy over the repeal of net neutrality, spreading both facts and fiction in their predictions of a Web-pocalypse. Many alarmist articles were written spelling out a doomsday scenario where the internet would be segmented and priced in packages, similar to a cable subscription, where bundles of similar sites would be charged an extra fee depending on how a user wanted to access the internet.
Image from Business Insider
A popular image circulated about MEO, a wireless carrier in Portugal that offers a baseline fee for internet service and then charges extra for certain bundles such as “Social,” “Video,” “Messaging,” and “Music.” Proponents of net neutrality argued that the U.S. faced a similar future without net neutrality if the FCC repeal took effect. There are two issues with this particular claim: first, as a member of the European Union, Portugal has net neutrality regulations already in place, with the MEO plan being an optional data plan for cellular data; second, the repeal of net neutrality would send U.S. internet policy back to 2015 standards, which did not have widespread web-packaging plans like the ones implied by the MEO plan. Even more outlandish theories proposed paying $1.99 per Google search and $9.99 per Netflix movie, a price hike that Netflix itself likely wouldn’t even be comfortable with. The official account for Senate Democrats tweeted out support for net neutrality, bizarrely arguing that users would receive the internet one word at a time without the regulations in place. Claims like these led to many being dismissive of the true effects of a net neutrality repeal. However, it would theoretically be possible for a MEO-type plan to occur without net neutrality, though it would likely be wildly unpopular and not last very long. What would be more likely would be ISPs charging high-bandwidth sites like Netflix, YouTube, and Facebook different rates for either technological or promotional reasons, which could in effect be potentially picked up by consumers through advertising and subscription price increases.

Is the fight over?

Because net neutrality was and continues to be a fiery topic that can stir activist reactions, the issue has not died yet. Thirty-four states and the District of Columbia have attempted to introduce legislation to enact statewide net neutrality in some form. States like California have passed statutes similar to the Obama-era regulations, but had come into conflict with the Department of Justice, which argued that the federal government had authority to control interstate commercial avenues like internet business. Recently, House Democrats in Congress passed a short bill, the Save the Internet Act, which would undo the FCC repeal and enact the Obama-era regulations into a law. This would prevent the executive branch, like President Trump or his FCC, from interfering with a legislative act. However, President Trump stated he would veto such a bill, and the Republican-controlled Senate refused to hold a vote on the bill. With such a polarizing and divisive issue on the table, it seems unlikely that any more changes will occur unless the Democratic Party can win back control of the Senate and/or White House. Net neutrality will therefore likely be a campaign issue for the upcoming 2020 presidential election. And, at least for the time being, we can all thankfully watch the conflict unfold uninterrupted through our free and open internet.
Sources: The Verge, ABC, Daily Wire, CNN, Snopes, NPR, Twitter Images: Business Insider Featured Image: Alexander Smith