Ask a technologist: Will losing net neutrality protections affect me?

Knot on a network (cat5) patch cable. Isolated on a white background. Knot on a network (cat5) patch cable. Isolated on a white background.
By John Feminella

In December, the Republican-led Federal Communications Commission voted to repeal its own 2015 ruling about how Internet service providers should be regulated, saying it was eliminating “heavy-handed micromanagement” of the Internet. Many users saw it differently, and lamented what they saw as a loss of important safeguards.

At the heart of the FCC’s ruling is an important question for the future of the web: Should Internet service providers (ISPs) be classified as common carriers? This might seem like an obscure legal debate, but it has profound implications for what you get to see on your laptop or smartphone, and perhaps more importantly, how much you’ll pay for the privilege.

Giving Internet service providers common carrier status means the agency can regulate how ISPs deliver content to users, and what kinds of business practices they’re permitted to engage in. Net neutrality advocates see this as important for ensuring the Internet remains a level playing field for everyone, and to ensure that ISPs don’t engage in practices they believe are abusive for consumers and businesses.

With the current gridlock in the Republican-controlled Congress making any improvement to these protections improbable, consumers and businesses will ultimately have to vote with their dollars to see the Internet they want, and support providers that want to preserve a level playing field. Fortunately, most of Charlottesville enjoys the comparatively rare case of having more than one Internet service provider. But the rest of America doesn’t; only 24 percent of communities in the United States have more than one high-speed broadband option. Everyone else is either under the yoke of a monopoly or doesn’t have access to broadband at all.

One local provider, Ting, says net neutrality is important to them. “We know our customers want this, and we want to double down on our commitment to a fair and open Internet even in the face of changing regulations,” says Monica Webb, Ting’s director of government affairs. Ting lobbied against the FCC changes and has pledged to operate as if the protections were still in place.

For its part, Comcast, the largest provider for Charlottesville, says that going forward it won’t “block, throttle or discriminate against lawful content.” And that may well be true. But without the FCC’s net neutrality protections, many of those promises are no longer enforceable by law.

Still, this all seems pretty hypothetical. After all, most people don’t think we live in a dystopia. Is this much ado about nothing?

Absolutely not, says Barbara Cherry, a legal expert on net neutrality and a professor at Indiana University. “The loss of these protections opens the door to a wide range of serious abuses,” she says. Cherry argues that larger telecoms prefer the regulatory restrictions removed, because it would enable them to pursue new kinds of business models, and potentially capture more revenue.

The problem for consumers and small businesses, Cherry says, is that these business models are often counter to how we might want to access the Internet. For example, an Internet service provider could adopt a policy of charging customers extra if they want to watch videos on streaming video sites, instead of treating all data as equal.

That might be better for the provider’s bottom line, but it’s probably not something consumers or businesses will want.

John Feminella is the co-founder of analytics startup UpHex and an adviser at Pivotal. He lives in Charlottesville and enjoys solving difficult technology problems.

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