This week, FCC chairman Ajit Pai issued a proposal to dismantle the net neutrality regulations that are currently in effect in the United States. Not only would this stymie efforts to offer high-speed internet access throughout the country, but also it would have a negative impact on the services that are currently available.
Despite the paramount importance of internet access in today's society, not everyone in the U.S. has access to a broadband connection. The Obama administration made various attempts to address the disparity in access, which included launching initiatives to promote the development of essential infrastructure.
However, the FCC is now attempting to cut back on those measures. Its proposals will reclassify cellular internet access as sufficient — even if it costs more, can't offer the same connection speeds, or is otherwise inferior to a home broadband connection.
Instead of continuing to make high-speed internet more widely available, the inbound regulations would move the goalposts on what qualifies as sufficient service. Beyond that, the internet as we know it is set to become far more fragmented, and less open and even-handed.
Slipping Through the Net
Net neutrality refers to regulation that forces internet service providers (like Comcast or Verizon) to offer the same connection speeds no matter what sort of content the user is accessing. Without these rules, companies could introduce limitations on how we surf the web.
For instance, since most major providers are part of a larger media conglomerate, we might see them prioritize their own subsidiaries. If a company wants to push its own video streaming platform, then connection speeds might be quicker when a customer is using that service, rather than a competitor like Netflix or YouTube.
That's a major inconvenience, but there are even more insidious uses for such freedoms. For example, Verizon owns Yahoo. In the absence of net neutrality regulations, Verizon could penalize customers who utilize a search engine other than Yahoo (by throttling connection speeds, for instance), if not prevent them from accessing another search engine at all.
Having this much control, they could also ensure customers were seeing only the ads they want them to see. This, of course, ties directly into marketing efforts — as these services make money by embedding advertisements, and a larger user base means more money. But in a world where companies are increasingly revealing themselves to be political lobbyists, the ramifications of this behavior cannot be overstated.
Companies could even ask their users to pay a separate fee to access a particular search engine or website. This isn't just conjecture; itemized internet packages are already a reality in countries that don't have net neutrality legislation.
In New Zealand, Vodafone offers mobile internet packages that are comprised of different types of services. You might have to pay a certain amount to access social apps like Snapchat and Instagram, and a separate fee to chat with friends via Facebook Messenger and iMessage. A similar framework is used by Portugal's MEO, where messaging, social media, music streaming, video streaming, and email are also split into separate data packages. Instead of paying to connect to the web, in a world lacking net neutrality we would have to select (and pay separately for) the individual services we want to use.
We face the very real prospect of internet access as we know it being phased out.
The repeal of net neutrality would also make it more expensive to acquire a comparable web browsing experience to the one that's considered standard today. Financial cost aside, it could also undermine the idea of the world wide web in other ways.
If an internet provider decides that it doesn't want to allow users to access a certain kind of content, it could throttle connections to those sites — or even block them completely. This is censorship, and in a time when many believe that the internet should become more open, not less, that's a very dangerous precedent.
Without net neutrality, online reporting would be poised to become increasingly partisan, with journalists and influential voices speaking from within a bubble based on the political leanings of their chosen provider. It could even have a negative impact on the health of cryptocurrency.
The FCC's proposal benefits corporations to the detriment of internet users. If these plans come to pass, the web — and the world it serves — is set to become a far less egalitarian place.