Net Neutrality: Did the FCC Make the Sky Fall?

By now, you have probably heard that the FCC repealed net neutrality on December 14, 2017. Maybe this news was greeted by memes like the one above in your social media feeds. If these are to be believed, the sky has fallen and we are all doomed. But what is really going to happen now that net neutrality is no longer the law of the land?

Hold Up…What Is Net Neutrality?

Before we get to what the future might look like, let’s take a moment to review. This isn’t the first time we’ve talked about this issue; back in 2016 we talked about how net neutrality works. In that blog, we defined net neutrality as “the belief that ISPs should promote an ‘open internet’ and cannot deliberately throttle or block access to less favorable or more resource-intensive websites and services.”
Simply put, net neutrality rules meant that the internet was treated as a utility; internet service providers (ISP) like Comcast or AT&T were required to offer all sites the same bandwidth (speed). The independent blog got the same treatment as Netflix. With the FCC’s repeal of net neutrality, ISPs can now treat bandwidth as a commodity that they can charge different rates for different speeds. Theoretically, Netflix can now pay an ISP for preferential treatment over the independent blog.

Will That Really Happen, Though?

There are many views about what the internet will look like going forward. Every possible outcome from a shrug of the shoulders to the end of the world has been speculated. For the rest of this article, we are going to look at three possible ramifications.

1. Two Tiered Internet: This is the situation that is in our Netflix example above. This result can have two negative effects—it will make service more expensive to the consumer, and could cause a “gatekeeper” effect. The thought behind the higher cost goes like this—if Netflix has to pay an ISP for better bandwidth, Netflix will pass that cost onto their customers. This is easy to believe and to see happening. The “gatekeeper” effect is a bit more opaque, but still a very real possibility. The thought is that ISPs will function as default content screeners. They will have the ability to offer slower bandwidth to content that they may not approve of. An example of this would be Comcast slowing the speed of a website dedicated to criticizing Comcast’s customer service.

2. The Portugal Example: Portugal allows for differently priced internet packages, so it is often held up as an example of what the landscape in the United States could soon look like. The pricing is set up around what you use the internet for. So if you spend all your time on Facebook, you would select the social plan. In this scenario, the cost isn’t passed on to the consumer from Netflix, but instead it is the ISPs that just create complicated pricing schemes to milk the consumer while limiting access to information for low income individuals.

3. Not Much Will Change: If the media and social media feeds are to be believed, this is one of the more foolish reactions presented, but it is worth taking a moment to review. Advocates for this point of view argue that the consumer will see very little change to their internet experience. They believe that ISPs want big services running smoothly on their network. For example, it is in the best interest of Comcast to have the smoothest, fastest Netflix possible because they can get more customers from providing quality service. Additionally, they argue that competition will keep prices low and internet speeds high.

Wait… So Which One Is It?

It is hard to say. The proponents of all three make compelling arguments, and it is a good bet that the result will somehow be a combination of all of them. It is not hard to imagine a bit of gatekeeping and different pricing packages being offered to customers—newspapers have been doing that for decades. The New York Times has an editor and publisher that decide which news is fit to print and also offers many different subscription packages. But there is truth to be found in those who say that in competitive markets there will be very little change to the established norms as ISPs compete for clients.

Well What Do We Know For Sure?

What we know is this: the fight for net neutrality is far from over. There will be many court cases challenging the FCC decision, and already there are rumblings for Congress to pass laws ensuring net neutrality. No matter how our experience on the internet changes, the FCC’s decision will not be the last we hear of on this issue.