The Federal Communications Commission has officially announced plans to end Net Neutrality. Net Neutrality hinges on the concept that the internet is a public utility and should be regulated accordingly. The current rules, as set in place by the previous administration, prohibit high-speed internet service providers from blocking or slowing down the delivery of websites, or charging extra fees for the best quality of streaming and other internet services for their subscribers. This is the philosophy at the heart of net neutrality: that access to the internet should be considered a basic right, like access to water or electricity, and therefore that access should not be under the control of the company that owns the power lines or water pipes.
While the United States government has long agreed that access to water, power, and phone lines are public utilities, the classification for the internet has been more contentious. Internet Service Providers, or ISPs, like Comcast and Time Warner Cable, continue to argue that Net Neutrality regulation is unconstitutional. A number of ISPs have sued over the regulations in the last decade, with the courts consistently upholding the regulations, most recently in 2016.
Nevertheless, the current Chairman of the F.C.C, Ajit V. Pai, has been moving to repeal the regulations since his designation as Chairman by the current administration. He has argued, puzzlingly, that the regulations only protect from theoretical harms of an unregulated internet that have not yet had the opportunity to materialize, and that the regulations create an unnecessary burden on ISPs. “Don’t fall for the [anti-market idealogues’] fearmongering,” he wrote today in a Wall Street Journal guest column. “…For almost two decades, the U.S. had a free and open internet without these heavy-handed rules.” He is evidently unaware that how the internet is used today, and its relative necessity in day-to-day life, may have slightly changed since 1997.
Pai also asserts in his column that “millions enjoyed an online community that was the envy of the world” prior to the implementation of the Net Neutrality regulations. Studies from shortly before the regulations were implemented tell a different story: The Cost of Connectivity Study, an annual report that examines the cost and speed of broadband Internet access in 24 cities in the United States (U.S.) and abroad, found that there was little to envy. In fact, the study found that “Overall, the data that we have collected in the past three years demonstrates that the majority of U.S. cities surveyed lag behind their international peers, paying more money for slower Internet access.”
Nevertheless, Pai’s proposal to dismantle Net Neutrality will likely pass along partisan lines when it comes up for a vote on December 14th. Gigi Sohn, ex-counselor to former FCC chairman Tom Wheeler, posted a statement highly critical of the move, comparing it to a turkey, and writing that “If adopted, the basic protections that consumers and innovators rely on to protect them from the anti-competitive and anti-consumer behaviors of huge broadband providers like Comcast and AT&T will be cooked. In a few short weeks, the big broadband providers will be free to double their prices, extract extra tolls on fast lanes for online businesses, and track and sell customers’ browsing activity. When they’re done, what will remain of consumer protection on the internet will be nothing more than a carcass.”
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