Web freedom at risk with loss of Net Neutrality

Nicole Ong and Michelle Lum

Facing the threat of net neutrality’s disappearance in 2017, many scrambled to contact Congress and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to voice their dissent toward its suggested repeal. Nevertheless, on Dec. 14, the FCC, spearheaded by Chairman Ajit Pai, voted 3-2 to eliminate net neutrality. As internet users around the world react to this decision, it is important to take a step back and examine exactly what net neutrality is and what its repeal means for many groups in this digital age.

Before net neutrality, there was no regulation of how internet service providers (ISPs) analyzed or manipulated data to be transmitted over the internet, unless said data was strictly illegal. ISPs, such as Comcast and Verizon, which provide consumers with internet access, had almost unrestricted control over users’ online usage. For example, if an ISP had been affiliated with a video streaming service, it could have charged more for access to other streaming services while keeping its own free, thus pushing consumers to use the affiliated service.

“The way I like to think about [net neutrality] is it is non-discrimination,” said Paddy Leerssen, Open Internet Fellow at Stanford Law School. “[ISPs] have to treat all internet users equally without trying to interfere with how people use the internet.”

Although it is unknown when the first case of an ISP throttling, or changing the speed of data transmission, arose, one of the first cases to spark the net neutrality debate surfaced in 2005 when Madison River Communications blocked calling based on Voice over Internet Protocol, a service that allows calls to be made over the internet. In 2008, Comcast was found to have slowed traffic from BitTorrent, a website used to share large files between users. Comcast apologized but later sued the government to dispute whether the FCC had the authority to enforce net neutrality rules. At the time, the classification of the internet as a Title I service under the Communications Act of 1934 prevented the FCC from enforcing net neutrality.

Following this incident, net neutrality emerged. Introduced by the FCC in the Open Internet Order of 2015, these were landmark regulations meant to curb the power of ISPs. The order reclassified ISPs as common carriers under Title II of the Communications Act of 1934, thus allowing for the legal basis to enforce net neutrality rules. Since then, internet users have been able to retain their right to surf the web without content restrictions. Net neutrality, a term coined in a 2003 paper by Columbia Law School professor Tim Wu, is often seen as the key to the open internet, one unhindered by looming ISPs. It prevents ISPs from throttling or blocking online content and from performing paid prioritization, or charging customers more to access one website over another.

“Net neutrality affects everyone because it protects the way we use the internet,” said junior Rohan Goel. “I really do believe that I have become so used to using the internet for free that I will not want to suddenly start paying for every Google search that I use or Snapchat that I send [as a result of the repeal].”

When the FCC voted to repeal net neutrality and reclassify the internet as a Title I service, another era began, one in which ISPs have uncontrolled sway over internet usage. The repeal of net neutrality gives ISPs free reign over online content, allowing them to offer paid prioritization or block content as a whole. Furthermore, the revocation proves detrimental to a wide variety of communities. Some have argued that a repeal of net neutrality will stifle innovation; for example, small businesses who rely on the internet for marketing their products and services may be subject to higher prices, leaving them unable to compete with larger corporations that have a greater capacity to pay those prices.

“Net neutrality has the potential to allow those major companies to separate themselves even further from smaller companies,” said math and computer science teacher Bradley Fulk. “It hurts that entrepreneurial spirit, especially in Silicon Valley, but in the entire country, really, because it just makes the mountain for small startups even bigger, and it is a harder hill to climb when that gap is already hard enough to bridge.”

Although the FCC released the official version of the net neutrality repeal order on Jan. 14, it is unclear when the repeal will officially go into effect as it has not yet been published in the Federal Register, the official journal of the United States government containing proposed and new government rules, regulations and public notices. The official repeal will come into effect sixty days after its publication in the Federal Register. Until then, net neutrality regulations still apply.

Many Americans who regard the discontinuation of net neutrality as a threat to their rights, however, have already met the FCC’s vote with outrage and forms of protest. Numerous petitions have been set up to push lawmakers to “save the internet,” with organizations encouraging Americans to write to members of Congress to use the Congressional Review Act as a means of reviewing and potentially reversing the FCC’s decision. 21 state attorneys have joined efforts to sue the FCC to prevent the repeal from occurring. Several states including California are currently working on their own net neutrality bills. It is, however, important to note that if the repeal does go into effect, there may not be as large of a change as many of these groups have been saying.

“If these rules get implemented, I do not think we should expect that ISPs will suddenly start blocking things left and right,” said Leerssen. “It is very likely that they would do this very slowly because if they do it suddenly, it is the easiest way for there to be backlash. The risks are more long term, and ISPs are going to do everything they can to keep their discrimination hidden from the public.”

Although the FCC’s decision to repeal net neutrality is the first step toward the rollback of open internet protections, Americans have already started to fight for their internet use rights. Only time will show what lies ahead for the future of the internet.