For you and me, the Federal Communications Commission’s plan to repeal net neutrality rules can be boiled down to two questions: What might happen? And whom do you trust?
Here’s our guide for internet users looking for answers.
The net neutrality rules were passed in 2015 during the Obama administration when Democrats controlled the FCC.
The goal was to adapt regulations in such a way as to acknowledge the essential role of high-speed internet access as a gateway to modern communication, information, entertainment and economic opportunity. So the FCC opted to regulate broadband service as a utility — making the internet the digital equivalent of electricity and the telephone.
The major broadband and telecom companies like AT&T and Comcast have argued that utility-style regulation represents unnecessary government meddling that will reduce their incentives to invest and improve service. The result, they say, will be worse service for everyone in the long run.
What might happen?
The biggest concern is that the internet will become pay-to-play technology with two tiers: one that has speedy service and one that doesn’t. The high-speed lane would be occupied by big internet and media companies, and affluent households. For everyone else there would be the slow lane.
The brand-name internet companies like Google, Facebook, Amazon and Netflix, analysts say, will comfortably be able to pay the higher rent. It will not affect their business, though it may crimp their profits. Avoiding higher prices is one reason the major internet companies have been champions of net neutrality.
But higher prices may be prohibitive for startup companies and new voices in the media and entertainment worlds. W. Kamau Bell, a comedian and host of the CNN documentary series “United Shades of America,” recently described in The New York Times how the internet is so often the path to popular and commercial success for newcomers. They upload a video and it goes viral.
That will no longer be true, Bell wrote, without net neutrality rules that “ensure that anyone who puts something on the internet has a fair shot at finding a life-changing audience.”
The government-backed guarantee of equal access is why public interest groups, nongovernmental organizations, charities and millions of private citizens wrote to the FCC in support of the net neutrality rules.
But the broadband and telecom companies — and some economists — say that the freedom to charge different prices for different products and services is vital to healthy markets. That kind of “price discrimination,” they say, is the fuel of innovation and efficiency.
In a public comment earlier this year to the FCC, AT&T called the Obama-era rules “an unprecedented regulatory overreach for which there is no economic or marketplace justification.”
The FCC rules mandated net neutrality principles under a utility-style telecommunications law, called Title 2, that dates to 1934. The carriers fear that it all but ensures price regulation.
“What they really object to is Title 2, not the net neutrality principles,” said Craig Moffett, an independent analyst.
So whom do you trust?
The answer, like so many these days, is politically charged. The repeal reflects the conservative backlash against government regulation, which has been a hallmark of the Trump administration.
Tim Wu, a law professor at Columbia University who is credited with coining the phrase “net neutrality,” said the repeal plan not only rolls back the Obama-era rules, it goes further. It specifically permits broadband carriers to block media content, Wu said, an added power which was not the case during the administration of George W. Bush.
“An allowance of blocking is really pretty shocking,” Wu said in an email.
Yet if government is in retreat, then consumers are left to trust the behavior of the internet-access companies like Charter and AT&T. In their filings with the FCC, the companies have claimed that faith would be well founded. Market incentives, Charter told the FCC, push the companies to provide the best service to its customers, catering to consumer demand.
Charter said it voluntarily adheres to net neutrality principles, and will continue to do so. “We do not block, throttle, or otherwise interfere with the online activity of our customers,” the company said.
But a weakness in the free-market argument, industry analysts say, is that in some regional and rural markets, households have only one internet provider available to them. That undermines the theory that competition will protect consumers.
Roger L. Kay, an independent technology analyst, predicted that larger bills — not content blocking — would be the most likely result. If the big internet and media companies will have to pay their carriers more for high-speed services, the expenses will trickle down to households.
Consumers, Kay said, “will end up paying higher prices for essentially the same service.”