The internet is a large, complicated place. From online shopping to streaming the latest movies, most of us depend on the internet on a daily basis. But starting Dec. 14, the internet as we know it may change.
On Nov. 21, the Federal Communications Commission released a proposal to end net neutrality regulations, the rules that keep the internet free and open. Among other changes, the proposal would remove the rules put in place by the Obama administration that prohibit high-speed internet service providers from slowing down or stopping the delivery of websites. These rules also ensure that companies are not charging customers extra fees for high-quality streaming or other similar services.
“Net neutrality concerns the lifeblood of modern communications — bandwidth on the Internet. In the United States today most broadband customers have one or at most two choices for their broadband service providers. When there is no competition, the service provider can behave as it pleases without fear of losing market share. You experience this every time you try to call your cable provider with a problem,” said Prof. Stephen Wicker, electrical and computer engineering.
Proponents of net neutrality argue that the rules ensure that everyone using the internet is provided with a uniform platform to share their content. Without these rules, those unwilling to pay higher fees to have their websites delivered at competitive speeds, would find it increasingly difficult to thrive on the internet.
“Given this situation, when a single large service provider is able to favor some companies and charge disproportionate fees to others, that large service provider has the ability to determine which companies survive on the Internet and which do not,” Wicker said.
In fact, with control now invested in the hands of telecom companies, small companies that depend on the internet for business are expected to be significantly affected because of their inability to pay the fees that would allow them to receive preferential treatment by ISPs.
“The repeal of net neutrality rules would lead, in the long term, to a reduction in what we can see on the web and how we see it. It will also lead to increased consolidation of media corporations, as service providers can now favor their own content providers,” Wicker said. “When that service provider is part of a larger company that also generates content, the problem is made worse. We may have hundreds of channels, but they will all be serving up the same content from the same media giant.”
FCC officials indicate that the existing rules are anti-competitive. Furthermore, the FCC claims that the rules prevent telecom companies from providing different types of services, thus limiting consumer choice.
“The FCC has always been a highly political organization. At the moment, its politics are very, very friendly to business. The FCC wants to free service providers to pursue new markets in differential pricing, thus increasing profits,” Wicker said.
For the time being, Comcast, a major telecom, says that it does not intend to slow websites that contain legally permissible material. However, Wicker explains that any effects of these changes will be primarily observable after some period of time.
“I would expect the damage to be medium to long-term, as any drastic changes might be noticed by the public,” Wicker said.
Though the proposal is expected to pass, activists say that the road to an actual appeal may be long. A U.S. appeals court upheld the net-neutrality regulations against a challenge brought up by ISPs in 2016 and online companies like Facebook and Google have also spoken out against the proposals.
“Normally I would say that ordinary folks like us can go to the comment section of the FCC website, but the comment process has apparently been corrupted,” Wicker said. “The best thing one can do is to protest loudly to political leaders and convince them that we actually care. It is good for politicians to realize that we are all paying attention.”