The Federal Communications Commission on Thursday took an ax to net neutrality. The rest of us, now at the mercy of broadband providers unshackled from the chains of fair regulation, are left asking, will the open internet survive?
More than a hundred Republican members of Congress voiced their support for repealing the net neutrality rules in a letter circulated a day before the vote, giving their constituents—who are overwhelmingly opposed to this decision—little or no time to respond. Democrats vehemently opposed the vote, condemning what many portrayed as a power grab by the nation’s largest telecommunications companies—AT&T, Verizon, and Comcast chief among them.
Led by Republican FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, Thursday’s vote is just the start, and it will take some time for the net neutrality-killing order to go into effect. Even then, it’s unclear how quickly the ISPs will react. Lawsuits are expected in the coming weeks, which will drag the fight over the next year at least. In the meantime, net neutrality advocates are suiting up to press Congress into action.
Internet freedom advocacy group Fight for the Future told Gizmodo on Wednesday night that it intends to press Congress to pass a resolution of disapproval under the Congressional Review Act, forcing the FCC to overturn the order. Demand Progress and the Free Press Action Fund, two advocacy groups that are part of a larger pro-net-neutrality coalition, have joined the effort.
Americans, meanwhile, are wondering what will become of the internet and their ability to access all that it provides. Fears have risen that, without the net neutrality rules in place, companies such as Verizon will seek to manipulate broadband access in a variety of ways, including by blocking or slowing down access to certain websites and services. More than ever, it is necessary for the public to serve as watchdogs over their internet providers now that the FCC has shed itself of that responsibility.
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Experts who’ve spoken to Gizmodo contend that this is unlikely to happen right out of the gate—despite the fact that the industry has spent vast sums of money solely to gain the power to do so. As the courts review the FCC order, ISPs may be wary of taking any immediate action, as doing so could give the court cause to issue a stay, which would prevent the order from going into effect until after a verdict is rendered. But make no mistake, ISPs will act.
“You have to be awfully naive to think they’re going to dump money on armies of lobbyists for years and years to rollback these rules and not change their behavior. It just seems kind of crazy to think that,” Kurt Walters, campaign director of Demand Progress, told Gizmodo.
Without net neutrality rules in place, there may be significant harm experienced by tech startups developing the online services of tomorrow. In an environment where the ISPs can pick and choose which services and apps receive privileged access—speeding up traffic to those services or slowing down the traffic of their competitors—the Verizons and Comcasts of the world will call the shots.
ISPs will also have the power to decide which voices are heard and which will be silenced. This is particularly troubling for marginalized groups, queer communities, and people of color among them, who depend on the open internet to drive attention toward their causes.
When we look at how ISPs might extort certain services for profit, the first company that comes to mind is Netflix, which Comcast throttled in 2014 and forced to pay additional fees under the threat of having the quality of its streaming video significantly downgraded.
Matt Wood, policy director at Free Press, which declared its intent to sue over the FCC’s order immediately following the commission’s vote, told Gizmodo that Comcast’s action left considerable collateral damage in its wake. “When they were slowing down the inflow to the network, it was seemingly designed to slow down Netflix. But then, because lots of traffic comes in over the same ports, there were hundreds or thousands of other sites getting hit,” he said. “People’s VPNs were being compromised because they weren’t working.”
Added Wood: “I don’t know if the customers service reps were told to mislead people on this—I kind of doubt it, I bet this is just their standard script—but Netflix wasn’t working, let’s say, or my VPN wasn’t working, and I would call the ISP and they would say, ‘Well, maybe you should buy a faster connection. Maybe there’s a problem with your speed.’”
Wood compared the problem to New Jersey governor Chris Christie’s infamous “Bridgegate” scandal. “The problem was, they shut down traffic getting to the bridge. And it was the same kind of problem there. It was all about having what was ostensibly an open pathway still not working because the inflow to that pathway had been cut off.”
While the Netflix scenario is the most prominently cited, it’s impossible to know what ISPs may be planning today, according to Walters. “You might have something where maybe they don’t disallow you from going to Netflix, maybe they don’t even throttle your video coming from Netflix, but they say, ‘How does this count toward your data limit?” he said. The implication being that Verizon or AT&T might find new ways to privilege services they favor or profit from directly.
Take, for instance, AT&T’s recent attempts to purchase Time Warner, a company that counts HBO among its assets. With the net neutrality rules erased, AT&T could—hypothetically—allow its customers to stream HBO without counting that traffic toward monthly cellphone data limits. Meanwhile, HBO’s competitors, such as Hulu, wouldn’t get the same deal. And if AT&T sped up its customers’ access to HBO, bringing Hulu and Netflix to a slow crawl, HBO would gain an unfair competitive advantage.
Republicans on the FCC have sworn up and down that such scenarios are merely wild “prophecies of doom” touted by crazy, freedom-hating, anti-business liberals. They argue that, because the order repealing net neutrality would force ISPs to be transparent about their service changes, they can essentially do no wrong. But regardless of what ISPs disclose, the order, in fact, legalizes any such action they wish to take. If two months from now, an ISP manages to acquire a major news network, like CNN, there are no rules now to stop it from significantly throttling the feeds of every other news outlet with which it competes.
Attorneys who’ve litigated net neutrality cases before the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit and others who’ve spent years monitoring the conduct of ISPs warn that we should expect to see apps and services that ISPs profit from receiving considerable advantages in the near future. If you require a real-world example look no further than Isis—no, not the terrorist group—the defunct mobile wallet that Verizon, T-Mobile, and AT&T jointly introduced nearly five years ago while simultaneously blocking roughly 241 million consumers from accessing Google Wallet.
Others point to AT&T’s former attempt to block iPhone users from accessing FaceTime unless they “upgraded” to a more expensive data plan. “You saw companies saying, ‘Sure, you’re free to use your broadband connection on your mobile phone to talk to somebody else as long as you’re also paying us for voice minutes,’” Woods said. “‘Or, if you won’t pay us for the voice minutes we want you to buy then you can’t use either video conferencing or other kinds of voice apps that run over the broadband connection.’”
There’s also Verizon, which was fined a measly $1.25 million in 2012 for blocking tethering apps because they allowed consumers to bypass its ridiculous $20 per month tethering fee.
These incidents and others offer clear examples of why the FCC’s promise that ISPs won’t do That Bad Thing They’ve Been Lobbying For Years To Do is complete and utter bullshit. But the truth is, many of the concerns dredged up by these examples are outdated. It’s the apps and services of the future, those being developed right now by the brilliant, young minds of our generation, that will be impacted the most. We don’t really know what the ramifications of the FCC’s decision will be—and neither does the FCC. In many cases, the consequences may be totally hidden from consumers, affecting us in ways only known to the ISPs themselves.
Some of the most powerful corporations American has ever produced are now in charge of deciding what information you should have access to and which services will benefit most from their infrastructure. And all we have now is a government official who used to work for one of those companies promising us that nothing bad will ever happen.
But, in more ways than one, even Ajit Pai is merely a tool. If you’d like to know who’s really responsible, look to your representatives in Congress. Scan this list of Republican lawmakers who blindly tossed their support behind this decision—unlike this guy who urged us all to take a moment and let our duly elected representative debate this issue openly for all the public to see. Staple that list to your voter card, and next time you’re asked to choose who will represent you in Congress, don’t forget who sold the internet down the river.