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After months of debate, lawsuits, and legislative fights, the roll-back of Obama-era net neutrality rules is now official. The big question for most of us is, will the web really change?
The rules, enacted back in 2015 by the Federal Communications Commission, were repealed by the current FCC by a party-line vote in December, but the repeal required the approval of the Office of Management and Budget before taking effect.
Net 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 has a financial interest in promoting one website over another. The rules banned ISPs from blocking or throttling lawful content and from entering into paid-prioritization deals to create fast lanes only for services that agreed to pay for them.
It’s unlikely that consumers will see the internet 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 for the past several years. The two camps predict very different futures for the internet.
“With today’s net neutrality repeal in full effect, the FCC has essentially handed the keys to the internet to service providers—many of them who face little or no competition,” says Jonathan Schwantes, privacy and technology policy director for Consumers Union, the advocacy division of Consumer Reports. “Internet providers are now free to move forward on the anti-competitive practices they were flirting with before these rules were passed, including throttling content and paid-prioritization schemes that place smaller businesses at a disadvantage and ultimately cost consumers more.”
Big internet service providers, which are cheering the rollback of net neutrality rules, object to such warnings. They say the web will remain essentially unchanged in the absence of government regulation.
“What consumers will notice today, tomorrow, next month, next year, or pick your date, is quite literally—nothing,” the NCTA — The Internet & Television Association wrote in a statement on its website Monday. “ISPs keep their customers happy by providing the best experience possible, not by forcing limitations through some Machiavellian throttling scheme that is hardly even possible to design, let alone enforce.”
In an op-ed published in CNET this weekend, FCC chairman Ajit Pai, the architect of the repeal, reiterated his position that the move “will protect consumers and promote better, faster internet access and more competition.”
Experts say that, if net neutrality norms do start to erode, it will probably happen incrementally, in ways that may be difficult to recognize at first.
“The court and congressional battles aren’t over yet, and any drastic changes from ISPs would probably not come right away but when they hope no one is paying attention any more,” says Danny Kimball, assistant professor of communication and media studies at Goucher College in Baltimore. “So consumers should stay vigilant."
Here’s what you can watch for.
More Zero-Rating Plans
The first change consumers may 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 service, such as a particular 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. “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, but the investigation ended with 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 videos you stream from 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 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,” Goucher College’s Kimball 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.” He also says an extra cost to consumers is likely to come from streaming companies, such as Netflix, “passing on the extra costs they incur from ISPs to be zero-rated.”
Some states have considered banning zero-ratings programs in the absence of federal rules. For example, a bill in California that has already passed the state Senate—perhaps the strongest proposed net neutrality bill in the country—would ban the programs.
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 (Netflix, Amazon, and so on) to send their content over an ISP’s network and into people’s homes. These 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, told Consumer Reports in December when the vote to repeal net neutrality rules took place.
Several years ago 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 that their consumers have a superior experience with their service.
Paid-prioritization and interconnection deals sound similar, but there’s a key difference. “Think of interconnection like the admission fee to Disneyland. Pay or you don’t get to play at all,” Singel explained. “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.”
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 at the time.
Tiered Internet Plans Could Be a Thing
Right now, if you pay for internet access, you can go to any website you want. It might 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, told Consumer Reports by email.
Consumer advocates such as Consumers Union’s Schwantes worry that online gaming sites or streaming video services such as Hulu and Netflix may require a premium broadband package that allows video, while basic plans might only include simple tasks such as email and text-based web browsing.
This is how it works in some parts of Europe, where low-tier plans don’t include access to services such as VoIP or messaging apps like WhatsApp. Sign up for a midlevel 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.
Plans like that are no longer banned. However, industry watchers say tiered plans are unlikely to take hold in the U.S. anytime soon.
“One good thing about this whole debate is that consumers are getting smarter,” says Kimball at Goucher College. “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, CEO of advertising-based streaming start-up 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 nonprofit 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 Singel told Consumer Reports.
In effect, an ISP could withhold access to a website by citing an astronomical fee “even while promising no blocking to its subscribers,” he said.
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 Skype and FaceTime over its cellular network.
In a 2003 paper on net neutrality, Columbia University’s 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 they determined to be offensive or immoral.
Yet Kimball at Goucher College says consumers aren’t likely to see ISPs moving to block websites and services, at least anytime soon. He sees new zero-rating deals and experimentation with paid prioritization as much more likely.
The Fight's Not Over
While the net neutrality rules are now officially repealed, there are still a number of efforts underway to restore those protections for consumers.
One is an effort to use the Congressional Review Act to undo the FCC’s repeal. It would also effectively bar that agency from taking a similar action again.
The CRA passed the Senate in May, with three Republicans and all Democrats and independents voting in favor. The next step would be a vote in the House, where it would be an uphill fight, requiring more than 20 Republicans to step across the aisle and support the measure. Even it if it did pass, the measure would face a likely veto by President Donald Trump.
“The success of this effort in the Senate was largely attributable to the overwhelming output of public support for net neutrality,” says Consumers Union’s Schwantes. “It’s time for the House to follow the Senate’s leadership and vote to restore net neutrality rules before consumers start paying the price.”
Consumer advocates say that because net neutrality is supported by most consumers, Republicans may not want to go on record opposing the measure with midterm elections looming. A nationally representative survey by Consumer Reports found that the majority of Americans support net neutrality rules to prevent internet service providers from blocking or discriminating against lawful content on the internet. More than two-thirds said that providers should not be able to choose which websites, apps, or streaming services customers can access.
In addition, a few net neutrality bills have been introduced in Congress, but they haven’t gained the widespread support they’d need to pass. There are disagreements about what level of consumer protection they should include, and whether the Federal Trade Commission or FCC should be the agency overseeing net neutrality.
In the interim, at least 29 states have introduced bills that restore some degree of net neutrality. And net neutrality bills have already been signed into law in Washington and Oregon.
Additionally, the governors of about a half-dozen states have passed executive orders banning state agencies from doing business with ISPs that don’t abide by net neutrality rules. And more than 20 states and the District of Columbia have joined a lawsuit that’s now in the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals to overturn the FCC repeal.
Consumer advocates and ISPs have both called for an end to the back-and-forth approach to ISP regulation of recent years, in which each change in administration brings a fresh approach to the issue. And, they say, state laws could create different—and even conflicting—regulations across the country.
That’s why many experts on both sides say that Congress should pass a federal law spelling out net neutrality rules and resolving the issue.
The need for clarity is one thing they do seem to agree on.
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