Net neutrality came closer to elimination on Tuesday. Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai announced that the agency’s five commissioners would vote on his plan to roll back strict regulations on how internet service providers operate in December. The order is expected to pass along a party-line vote.
Pai, who was named FCC chairman by President Donald Trump, has been pushing all year to undo the 2015 decision by the FCC to reclassify internet service providers as utilities. The old rules, supported by former president Barack Obama, were meant to ensure that ISPs serve all types of data at the same speeds, rather than block certain content or place some content in prioritized “fast lanes.” In a statement, Pai decried the current net neutrality rules as a “heavy-handed” mistake. “It’s depressed investment in building and expanding broadband networks and deterred innovation,” he wrote.
While the specifics of Pai’s plan won’t be released until Wednesday, it’s expected to give ISPs nearly free reign in determining how to serve content. The FCC will require ISPs to disclose how they prioritize content to consumers, but companies could change these rules whenever they pleased. The Federal Trade Commission would handle enforcement against bad actors, but it would operate on a case-by-case basis rather than establish overarching regulations like the current net neutrality rules. Consumers, according to Pai, would have free choice to abandon companies whose rules they don’t like. But many communities are served by only one or two ISPs.
The biggest tech corporations have taken their usual sides on the issue. The Internet Association, a lobbying group for firms such as Facebook and Google, said Pai’s order “defies the will of millions of Americans.” USTelecom, an ISP lobbying association, called the old regulations “antiquated” and “restrictive.” Legal challenges to the order are expected.
Ultimately, though, all these corporate giants will be fine whether net neutrality exists or not. ISPs, typically loathed by their customers, can’t afford to make the products of the world’s most popular consumer-tech companies slow or inaccessible. Large internet companies are so rich that they can afford to pay extra to land in a bundle of preferred Verizon or Comcast services if it comes to that. Netflix has openly said as much.
The bigger problem is that the next Facebook or Google is likely to have its growth stifled in a world where some internet services are more easily accessible than others. We’re already living in a digital landscape largely bound by opaque gatekeepers whose mysterious algorithms keep us in their walled gardens, whether it’s the Facebook News Feed or the suite of Amazon Prime services. Killing net neutrality will make it even harder for a lesser-known company to break through and compete if they’re forced to spend money just to be on a level playing field of accessibility.
Pai has claimed that this worry is purely theoretical and that net neutrality advocates are getting worked up over nothing. But the regulations have been in legal limbo for the better part of a decade. We’ve never really seen what ISPs might try if they were confident that government regulators wouldn’t strike down their actions. Come next year, we just might.