Amidst the tumult and drama of the first months of the Trump administration, it’s been difficult to follow changes in policy. Among the changes that are already underway, however, is a seismic shift on net neutrality. The principle that all internet traffic should be treated equally is about to be undergo a radical break, due to the Trump administration’s appointment of Ajit Pai as the new chair of the Federal Communications Commission. Pai, a former lawyer for Verizon, is decidedly pro-free market and opposed to regulation, and he is determined to change the course set by the Obama administration.
Unfortunately, net neutrality is an issue that is already subject to confusion: Many people don’t know exactly what it means and what its practical effects actually are. President Trump himself has in the past referred to net neutrality as something that might hurt conservative outlets, repeating the mistaken idea that net neutrality regulates content. It does not. Such confusion, however obscures a very important, simple point: The debate over net neutrality is a debate over not only what our digital future should look like, but the general direction of the country going forward.
Coined by Tim Wu is 2002, net neutrality refers to the idea that all traffic on the internet should be treated equally. That means that any company who provides internet service to the public should deliver, say, a Netflix stream, an online game, a video conference call, or a Spotify playlist in the same way. By extension, it thus also means that certain types of content—such as video services provided by a company that is also your internet service provider, or data accessed through a website your provider has a business relationship with—cannot be privileged over others. Additionally, particular apps or sites—such as those that might compete with your telecom company—are not blocked, slowed down, or otherwise hamstrung. The point is to ensure that one’s experience of the internet is unfettered by outside interests.
This is currently law of the land—but it will almost certainly change soon. Pai has already set in motion the process to repeal these regulations. But to understand exactly what’s at stake, it helps to take a look at how we got here.
As the home of the largest telecom businesses and thousands of digital companies, the United States has historically favored less regulation when it comes to the internet. For that reason, internet service was, up until 2015, classified as Title I information service, an FCC category that allows such services to only be lightly regulated.
But over the years, there were what net neutrality proponents felt were significant examples of internet service providers using this free rein unfairly. When Apple released Facetime, for example, AT&T didn’t let consumers use it unless they were on Wi-Fi. AT&T also imposed secret data caps from 2011-2014, while Comcast included hidden fees. These had to be undone retroactively, through litigation by consumer advocates. Perhaps more significantly, though, as services like YouTube and Netflix started to take up huge amounts of bandwidth in the past decade—sometimes, nearly half of all U.S. internet traffic—providers began talking about so-called “fast lanes” that would ask those companies to pay to maintain smooth delivery of their service.
It’s this latter point that most clearly gets to the core of net neutrality. While the AT&T-Facetime example was eventually corrected, what a fast lane policy does is give an implicit advantage to those huge companies who have resources and clout, both to pay and to negotiate a better deal. These are barriers that newer, smaller sites would find prohibitive. In this way, net neutrality isn’t really about your ISP slowing down Netflix—these days, that would annoy so many customers that providers know it would be bad business—but rather, it’s a threat to the next Netflix. How does anyone compete with huge multinationals who can pay for their customers to have a better experience? And the practice could further privilege content that reflects the views of the powerful: It is not difficult to imagine, for example, a small progressive media site being delivered more slowly than a Fox News video stream. How do individuals resist when already entrenched incumbents are given priority in our digital public space? Net neutrality isn’t just about maintaining good consumer experiences: It’s about a set of principles under which the conditions for online innovation and freedom are maintained.
This was the view of Obama administration’s FCC chair, Tom Wheeler—or at least it became his view, after a huge public outcry in defense of net neutrality during Obama’s second term. But the FCC’s policies also shifted towards neutrality in those years in response to the agency’s own battles with Verizon and other large telecom companies. In those fights, the providers claimed that the FCC’s attempts to regulate them went beyond what the agency had the power to demand of Title I regulated companies. The way that the telecom companies were classified didn’t allow the FCC to regulate them the way it wanted to, the providers claimed. And so the FCC changed the classification. In June 2015, the agency published a new set of guidelines for telecommunications that reclassified internet service providers as Title II common carriers.
Title II is a very different kind of regulatory classification. Opponents of net neutrality like to refer to Title II as a set of Depression-era rules designed for railroads and telephone monopolies. But in principle, what Title II actually allows for is the idea that any company that ends up functioning like infrastructure to move things across the country—and in the case of the internet, what these companies move is information—has to do so in the public interest. When the internet began to be regulated this way, it reflected the growing consensus that the internet is a utility that must treat the delivery of its services neutrally, like a company delivering electricity or water to retail customers. The reclassification of internet providers under Title II was thus a huge win for net neutrality advocates.
Republicans oppose the reclassification, and Agit Pai is leading the charge. In his recent comments on the issue, Pai has stated that “The more heavily you regulate something, the less of it you’re likely to get.” There is significant debate as to whether this is true, but the FCC is now moving ahead with deregulation regardless. In a “Notice of Proposed Rulemaking,” Pai announced that the FCC will revert to Title I classification for internet providers, but also questioned whether net neutrality is necessary at all.
In practical terms, the effects may not be obvious. If your daily internet use includes some Twitter, Facebook, Netflix, or YouTube, it is unlikely you’ll notice much difference at first. What’s more probable is that providers will begin to chip away at rules designed to stop them from slowing down certain websites. That means that services the providers don’t like—such as the popular Kodi app, which has both legal and illicit uses—might be affected. Proposed ideas about getting large companies like Netflix and YouTube to pay for their use of bandwidth will rear up again, making it harder for smaller sites to challenge entrenched players. Privacy may be affected, as less of a regulatory framework makes it harder to challenge things like a recent change that allows providers to use your data to sell ads.
Perhaps more significant are the “unknown unknowns,” the future services, apps, or new ways of using the internet that we haven’t thought of yet and which may be affected by a deregulated infrastructure. A key point is that we live in an era of significant consolidation. NBC and Comcast merged in 2011; Time Warner owns CNN, HBO, and numerous other properties. Increasingly, the entities that deliver our internet access also create content we use it to see, and they have a long-term incentive to prioritize their own material. Net neutrality was a defense against this sort centralization of power.
In that sense, net neutrality is not only an important policy in pragmatic terms, but a crucial principle in ideological ones, too. While we shouldn’t dismiss what has happened up until now, the effects of stronger or weaker net neutrality haven’t been earth shattering, at least not so far. What is actually at stake is what the future of the internet will look like.
At its start, the web contained all sorts of utopian ideas about connection, a global community, and a new age of information and understanding. This turned out to be too hopeful by far; the abuse, acrimony, and polarization online quickly took the sheen off those ideas. But the principle of the internet as a commons—a kind of public space for the creation of and participation in culture—should not be lost.
As such, net neutrality is emblematic of the problems facing 21st century America. Whether in internet policy, health care, housing, or finance, the issue facing the country is whether or not market based solutions can be as fair as those involving regulation, the state, and public options. There are deep, profound cultural investments on either side of this debate. But the centrality of digital technology to the American economy and its future makes the net neutrality debate especially significant: As the internet goes, so goes the country. For their part, the beliefs of the current administration are clear.