Before last Thursday the internet was a free and open place, its content and users were treated equally, internet provides like Verizon and AT&T were not allowed to slow or block content they didn’t like, or hike on additional fees for using certain social media platforms like Messenger or Instagram. Sounds like a good scenario. However, after the Federal Communications Commission voted last week 3-2 to repeal the Obama-era net neutrality rules that regulated these actions, the landscape of the internet as we know it may not be a free and open space, which could affect internet users and small business owners according to a Rohnert Park digital media expert.
In 2015 the Obama Administration put in place rules that would regulate broadband companies — also known as ISP’s, such as AT&T, Verizon or Sonic from increasing or decreasing speeds to access certain online content and from setting fees for faster speeds or for accessing certain platforms on the web. Simply put, this allowed the internet to be an open environment.
Kerry Rego, a social and digital media professor at Sonoma State University and a Rohnert Park social media consultant, took the time to speak in an interview about net neutrality and what this monumental decision means for the average internet user.
Rego explained net neutrality as no one person or company being able to block or interfere with internet traffic, the traffic can keep constantly moving freely.
“The concept of the internet has been around for 30 years as a communication device, but it wasn’t until around 2015 that some organizations got together and decided that the FCC needed to ensure that the internet was open and free… There really is no one body that controls the internet, it doesn’t have geographical boundaries and nobody owns it, so a lot of the laws and rules around the internet are coming up as needed. The Title II Communications Act gave users the strongest protection possible and really what this means is, nobody can throttle, nobody can block or otherwise interfere with internet traffic,” Rego explained of what net neutrality and the regulations that came with it really means.
Then FCC Democratic Chairman Tom Wheeler heavily backed the concept of net neutrality and under him the FCC stepped forward in reclassifying internet providers as “telecom providers,” allowing the commission a broad space to set forth regulations on internet providers regarding issues like pricing and privacy. The Obama Administration then passed the Title II Communications Act, which as Rego explained, gives internet users the strongest protection in ensuring a fair internet. The act also mirrored “The Four Internet Freedoms,” that were coined in 2004 by then FCC Chairman Michael Powell, which state that people have, “Freedom to access content, freedom to run applications, freedom to attach devices and freedom to obtain service plan information.”
Yet with an FCC Chairman (Ajit Pai) who has been critical of net neutrality and with the 3-2 vote that occurred last Thursday, these freedoms may be affected. Rego said the people that could be most affected from the lack of an open and free internet, are minorities, as well as lower-income families.
“The group of people that are most affected by the net being neutral and open and free, are people of color and also those that are at lower socioeconomic levels. They are impacted because freedom of speech is guaranteed with an open internet, so if you have something like police brutality or financial or political collusion activists have the ability to communicate about what is going wrong around them and speaking up. And when you have net neutrality repealed you dial back those regulations… and someone that may speak against Comcast for example, may find their internet connection turned off,” Rego said. She also mentioned that it could be hard for small business owners to get their business going since it may be pricier for internet services and speed.
To use a non-politically charged example of what may now happen now that net neutrality is gone, Rego said it would be like trying to order a pizza from Domino’s and the internet connection becomes sluggish because that internet provider may have a contract with Pizza Hut and thus, does not want you to order from anywhere except Pizza Hut.
“I love this explanation of this meme… If you are ordering pizza online from Domino’s and you find that your internet connection becomes very slow, or you are not even able to access domino’s.com because Pizza Hut has a contract with Comcast that interferes with any connection with any of its competitors. So you can’t order pizza online from anybody but Pizza Hut because they are paying for it,” Rego explained. “So that is really a non-politicized way to show how when we repeal the neutral state of the internet this may be the competitive type of behavior you could see.”
But will the average internet user really feel these effects of having a web that doesn’t provide fair and equal information unless you pay up? Rego said it is very likely since the FCC is a federal commission. She also pointed to an article in the Verge about the lack of net neutrality in Portugal and how it has led to internet providers splitting the web into packages, where you have to pay a certain amount to access music websites such as Spotify, or social media platforms such as Facebook.
“In the Verge there is a really good visual that shows what these pricing packages will look like. As an example, (Portugal) has a package called ‘smart net,’ and they break the different packages of services into messaging, social, video, email, music and cloud and it shows the different cost variations broken down by the different data that these services requires. In Portugal each package is the same price (4 euros, which is around $4.75), but you have to add on all of these sections to get them,” Rego said.
And so the big difference is that with neutrality repealed, ISP’s can set a charge for you to access four different social media sites instead of paying one general fee for internet access.
“Currently, we pay one cost to access the internet and the gates are open, now, they are nickel and diming us for each service or level of service that we want to use, so the cost is going to be much higher at the end of the day. And Portugal is only one example, I can imagine a whole fresh variation of frustration from pricing in tiers,” Rego said.
Consumers may not see the effects of a loss of net neutrality right away, but this could certainly be the future of the internet, packing it into different tiers of internet services that you have to dig deeper in your wallet as well as steering you towards certain favored content. For example. Verizon owns Yahoo and AOL and under the Obama-era regulations, Verizon was prohibited from blocking its competitor, Google, or for charging more to access it, but now with this net neutrality overhaul, Verizon could do this if it so chose.
However, supporters of net neutrality, such as FCC Chairman Pai and many republicans such as Pai’s fellow FCC commissioners, Brendan Carr and Michael O’Reily, argue that this bold move is that it will increase competitiveness amongst ISP’s and that competitiveness requires regulation. For instance, if one ISP is charging you a lot to access the web and messing with your fair access you can just use another internet provider service and that Americans will have more of a choice in terms of choosing an ISP. Yet, the question still remains if a free ISP market can still support a free internet.
As reported in the Washington Post, Pai said last Thursday prior the FCC vote, “Within a generation, we have gone from email as the killer app to high-definition video streaming… Entrepreneurs and innovators guided the internet far better than the heavy hand of government ever could have.”
Following the FCC’s vote last week, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra released a statement decrying the repeal of net neutrality and said that the commission failed to do the right thing.
“The FCC decided that consumers do not deserve free, open and equal access to the internet. It decided to ignore the millions of Americans who voiced their strong support of net neutrality rules… Here in California — a state that is home to countless startups and technology giants alike — we know that a handful of powerful companies should not dictate the sources for the information we seek or the speed at which our websites load,” Becerra said.
Becerra also added that he remains committed to ensuring that people get access to fair and equal internet access.
Rego said despite net neutrality having many supporters, she wasn’t too surprised of the decision last week. “The majority of the people knew what they were going to do when they walked in and you can see that,” Rego said.