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Now that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) under chairman Ajit Pai has officially repealed net neutrality rules that have been in effect since 2015, the question becomes: Will the web really change?
The vote took place on Thursday, but nothing will change immediately, according to both advocates and opponents of the rules. That may be all they agree on, though. There's a good reason that net neutrality has been one of the most contentious digital issues of 2017. The two camps predict very different futures for the internet.
Network neutrality is the principle that all internet traffic should be transmitted to consumers with the same quality and at the same speed, regardless of whether an internet service provider (ISP) has a financial reason to want to promote one website over another.
Getting rid of net neutrality rules gives "a green light to an internet service provider to play favorites with its preferred websites, while saddling other sites with slower speeds and higher costs to reach consumers," says Jonathan Schwantes, senior policy counsel for Consumers Union, the policy and mobilization division of Consumer Reports. Advocacy groups, online companies, and many consumers worry that the changes could lead to confusing new tiers of service, fewer online startups, and rising prices.
Big internet service providers, which are cheering the rollback of net neutrality rules, strongly object to such warnings. They say the web will remain essentially unchanged in the absence of government regulation.
Michael Powell, a former FCC chairman who now heads an industry trade group, the NCTA-The Internet & Television Association, says ISPs have a strong incentive to follow net neutrality rules voluntarily.
"Degrading the internet, blocking speech and trampling what consumers now have come to expect would not be profitable, and the public backlash would be unbearable," he said in a conference call with reporters on Wednesday. "Our digital lives will go on just as they have for years."
Experts say that, if net neutrality norms do start to erode, it will probably happen incrementally, in ways that may be hard to recognize at first.
Here's what consumers should watch for.
More Zero-Rating Plans
The first change consumers could experience will be the spread of "zero-rating" and sponsored data plans. That's when a provider doesn't count the data you use when you access a particular service, such as a streaming or payment app, it wants to promote.
People are familiar with data caps on cellular plans, but the same concept is now spreading to residential ISPs, as well. "Pilot data-cap programs for home broadband service have popped up here and there over the past few years, but we anticipate there could be more of them now," Schwantes says.
Zero rating has already been around for a couple of years. The practice was being investigated by the FCC until the transition to new leadership at the beginning of the Trump Administration. Several ISPs have zero-rating arrangements.
For instance, cellular customers of AT&T, which owns DirecTV, get zero-rating on DirecTV Now, the company's video-streaming service. Comcast zero-rates its own Stream TV service, while competitors such as Amazon Video and Netflix count against your data cap. Verizon exempts its Go90 video service from its customers’ mobile data plans, and some T-Mobile plans allows users to stream music from services such as Apple Music and Spotify without using up any of their data.
On one level, this sounds great for consumers. But advocates worry that the practice will help ISPs drive more customers to its own services—not by providing better quality, but by artificially making it more expensive to try other services. The incentive to stick with your ISP's own streaming service will just get stronger if more consumers turn to internet-delivered video services, 4K video becomes the norm, and more ISPs impose limits on how much data you can use each month.
Additionally, some observers say that zero-rating's cost-savings can be illusory.
"In some ways, zero-rating plans are especially pernicious, because they give consumers the appearance of getting a great deal," Danny Kimball, assistant professor of communication and media studies at Goucher College, says. "But a lot of the time it's a way for a company to charge more for everything else you get as part of that bundle."
Price Hikes for Internet Access
There are a couple of ways that the end of net neutrality rules could drive up the prices consumers pay for internet access.
First, ISPs may impose "access fees" on larger internet companies. These would be fees paid by web companies (Facebook, Netflix, and so on) to send their content over an ISP's network and into people's homes. Those costs could be passed along.
"The easiest way for ISPs to enact tolls on the internet is simply by charging online services at the point where those sites or services enter a broadband ISP's network," Ryan Singel, Media and Strategy Fellow at Stanford Law School’s Center for Internet and Society, says.
This happened several years ago, when Netflix was forced to pay several larger ISPs, including Comcast, to get better content delivery for its streaming customers. The two companies engaged in a very public scuffle, and one result was that the 2015 net neutrality rules gave the FCC the ability to review these "interconnection" practices.
The net neutrality rollback removes this oversight.
Paid-prioritization deals could also drive prices upward. This is where companies pay extra to get on a fast lane so their consumers have a superior experience with their service.
Paid prioritization and interconnection deals sound similar, but there's a key difference, Singel says. "Think of interconnection like the admission fee to Disneyland. Pay or you don't get to play at all. Paid priority deals, where companies can pay for fast lanes, are more like Disney express passes that get you to the head of the line."
Tech website Ars Technica reported on November 29 that Comcast had removed a "no paid prioritization" pledge from its website on the very day that the Federal Communications Commission announced the net neutrality rollback that was enacted on Thursday.
However, Comcast spokesperson Sena Fitzmaurice sought to shut down speculation that the company was interested in pursuing such deals.
"We’ve said consistently we’ve not entered into paid prioritization agreements and have no plans to do so," she told Consumer Reports.
Tiered Internet Plans Could Be a Thing
Right now, if you pay for internet access, you can go to any website you want. It may not always be that way.
"I think one core argument is that broadband pricing will become more like airline pricing—you start paying more fees for the different parts of the internet," Tim Wu, the Columbia University law professor who coined the term "net neutrality" back in 2003, wrote in an email to Consumer Reports.
This is how it works in some parts of Europe, where low-tier plans don't include access to services such as voice over IP (VoIP) or messaging apps like WhatsApp. Sign up for a mid-level tier or fee-based add-ons, and you might get access a greater variety of services, while only a higher-priced top-tier plan would provide you with unfettered access to the internet.
These kinds of internet access plans are banned by the 2015 net neutrality rules, but they would be allowed under the FCC's proposed order.
However, not many industry watchers think that tiered plans are likely to take hold in the United States.
"One good thing about this whole debate is that consumers are getting smarter," Kimball, the Goucher College scholar, says. "This would make the internet look more like cable TV—and consumers hate cable TV."
Consumers Could See Fewer Startups
If ISPs create fast lanes and slow lanes based on the ability of a company to pay, some startups could have a hard time getting off the ground.
“The rollback of net neutrality rules could have a negative impact on newer streaming services," says Colin Petrie-Norris, the CEO of an advertising-based streaming start-up called Xumo. "If ISPs are allowed to charge more for certain content providers and paid prioritization deals become common, this could present significant challenges. As a newer company in the streaming space, I could be at a disadvantage."
That kind of concern prompted a coalition of businesses and trade organizations to send a letter to the FCC in November asking the agency to reconsider its plan to undo net neutrality rules. Airbnb, Etsy, Foursquare, GitHub, Pinterest, Reddit, Shutterstock, Square, Tumblr, Twitter, and Vimeo were among the companies that participated.
Some net neutrality advocates also worry about how non-profit organizations and educational institutions will cope with the new rules.
Petrie-Norris says the repeal of net neutrality rules gives ISPs more power to control pricing and choose what kind of content consumers can access. "End users will also feel the burden of this decision which could result in limited access to content, increased costs, risk of privacy and low-quality, slow services,” he says.
Some Content Might Get Blocked
Internet service providers uniformly promise that they won't block legal web content for commercial purposes.
However, some observers say that ISPs have a history of attempts to push the boundaries of net neutrality.
In 2013, in the course of a lawsuit over an earlier FCC attempt to impose net neutrality rules, "Verizon told a federal court that as an 'information service' it had the right to charge any website any amount of money it liked—reasonable or not—and block that service if it did not pay up," Stanford Law's Ryan Singel says.
In effect, an ISP could withhold access to a website by citing an astronomical fee "even while promising no blocking to its subscribers," Singel says.
And the issue of content-blocking hasn't always been just a debating point. Back in 2005, the FCC used its regulatory authority over phone providers to stop a telecommunications company called Madison River from blocking the Vonage VoIP service. A few years later, the agency intervened to stop Comcast from blocking or slowing BitTorrent files traveling across its network. Several years ago, AT&T sought to restrict the use of both Skype and FaceTime over its cellular network.
In a 2003 paper on net neutrality, Timothy Wu surveyed the top six DSL and top 10 cable providers, and found that all of them had terms of service that allowed the ISPs to block content that was offensive or immoral.
Consumer and free-speech advocates see this as a particularly important risk. "Companies like AT&T, Comcast and Verizon would be able to decide who is heard and who isn’t," an advocacy group called Free Press recently posted on its website. "They’d be able to block websites or content they don’t like or applications that compete with their own offerings."
How likely is this scenario? Kimball, the Goucher College academic, says consumers could soon see new zero-rating deals and experimentation with paid prioritization, while tiered internet service or outright blocking of individual web sites are less likely.
But there's one more possibility. A federal law spelling out net neutrality rules could end the back-and-forth approach to ISP regulation of the past few years, where each change in Administration brings a fresh approach to the issue. Both consumer advocates and internet service providers say they'd welcome a clear resolution to the debate.
Which is one more thing they can agree on.
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