Anyone who has been on social media or read the news in the past several months has surely heard the words “net neutrality,” along with campaign slogans calling for people to “battle for the net” or “gofccyourself.” Such slogans were created in protest after the FCC announced their intention to overturn net neutrality rules, which were put in place under the Obama administration in 2015. The Obama-era rules “reclassified internet access as a Title II telecommunications service,” which meant that internet service providers (ISPs) had to abide by the same rules that regulate telephone companies—in other words, they had to provide internet access on an equal and neutral basis, and were forbidden from blocking or slowing the connection to certain websites.
On Thursday, December 14, the FCC ignored widespread internet protests and voted to repeal the 2015 rules upholding net neutrality. But what will this decision really mean for the average university student, and does it truly amount to an attack on “freedom of expression and access to information,” as the Human Rights Watch describes it?
There is good news—while many opponents of the FCC decision have warned that ISPs will begin charging for basic access to websites, as is the case in Portugal, this seems extremely unlikely in the short run. In the face of widespread public support of net neutrality, ISPs have been reassuring their customers that nothing will change in the way they provide internet. For example, AT&T posted on their website that they will continue to operate their network in “an open and transparent manner,” and that they will not “unfairly discriminate in [their] treatment of internet traffic.” With all eyes focused on their practices—at least for the time being—ISPs will probably try to be careful about inciting public rage, especially in such an overt way as charging users $4.99 a month to access Facebook or email.
However, that could mean that ISP prioritization of certain websites will happen behind closed doors, raising students’ internet prices in sneakier ways. Past net neutrality violations by ISPs illustrate what this might look like—in 2012, for example, AT&T blocked Facetime on its customers iPhones unless they would upgrade to an unlimited voice-and-text plan, a move that would raise the cost of their monthly phone bills by 60 percent or more, according to the Free Press. That same year, Comcast introduced a new video-streaming service on the Xbox that was exempt from data-caps in their internet plans, while Netflix and other streaming services would still count towards the cap. And from 2011-2013, Verizon, AT&T and Sprint blocked Google Wallet from customers’ phones because it competed with a similar service that the networks already offered called ISIS. In all of these cases, customers were either forced to pay significantly higher amounts in order to access the content or application that they want, or they are simply blocked from accessing it. These are alarming possibilities, especially for students accustomed to using Venmo to pay their friends for Uber, Netflix to take a study break, and Facetime to provide online tutoring or get in touch with their families in another state.
Moreover, all of these examples demonstrate that there is a real precedent for violations of net neutrality—and, in the case of Verizon, AT&T and Sprint teaming up to block Google Wallet, that there is even a precedent for coordinated ISP action against certain apps or companies. Especially given the small number of ISPs on the market—and the fact that the majority of Americans only have one choice for high-speed internet—such predatory tendencies are frightening, and could lead to higher prices and fewer choices for students in the coming years.
Some might shrug and say, “That’s fine, I do most of my work in the library, anyway.” Libraries, however, could also face major consequences if ISPs start to provide “faster” or “higher-content” internet access at a fee. In an open letter regarding the Thursday FCC vote, the presidents of New York, Brooklyn and Queens public libraries worried that the repeal of net neutrality rules could lead to higher broadband internet costs in order to receive high-speed access to the internet. For many libraries—including university libraries—high-speed, high-bandwidth internet is not just a luxury, but a necessity in order to provide video streaming, remote access to collections and expensive online databases. Higher prices could lead to a variety of unfavorable options: either libraries will have to provide slower service; their resources will be stretched thin, forcing them to cut down on the number of databases students can access; or—an option that will surely make any student cringe—tuitions might go up to meet rising internet costs, especially as libraries increase the amount of digital resources that they provide.
FCC President Ajit Pai is fond of claiming that the repeal of Obama-era rules will just make things go back to “how they were before 2015.” This, however, is not the complete truth. The 2015 regulations were not put in place simply for the sake of more government regulation over the tech industry, but rather in response to the multiple net neutrality violations that had caused an uproar in the years leading up to 2015. In fact, net neutrality was a principle upheld on both sides of the aisle until recently, and the FCC has made various attempts to effectively regulate ISPs since the Bush administration.
Specifically, the 2015 regulations were meant to solve a legal problem that had been raised by the courts in the case of Verizon Communications Inc. v. Federal Communications Commission (2014)— namely, that the FCC did not have the power to regulate ISP activity as long as the internet was classified as an “information” service instead of a “telecommunications” (or utilities) service. Only if the FCC reclassified ISPs as “common carriers” would they have the legal authority to promote net neutrality through regulations. Now that the 2015 rules have been repealed, we will be back in the 2015 world, but without even the meager 2010 regulations, which were struck down by the court’s 2014 decision. In other words, the FCC will be rendered nearly powerless to prevent ISPs from violating net neutrality.
This isn’t the end of the net neutrality debate, however—shortly after the vote on Thursday, Senator Edward J. Markey (D-MA) announced plans to introduce a Congressional Review Act in the Senate to undo the FCC’s decision. In the House, Rep. Mike Doyle, a Democrat from Pittsburgh, started a similar process. Both bodies of Congress will have sixty days to enact the CRA, if they choose to do so. If these movements fail, many groups are promising to challenge the FCC in court as well. So far, attorney generals from several states have declared that they will sue the FCC to challenge the decision, along with at least three public interest groups—Public Knowledge, Common Cause and Free Press. Legal experts have indicated that these groups stand a good chance of winning some concessions, both because the FCC did not follow procedure in gauging public opinion on this issue and because Ajit Pai’s proposal labels internet as an “information service” rather than a “telecommunications service,” a debatable distinction in the era of Facetime, Facebook Messenger, and other crucial communications services provided over the web.
The “battle for the net” isn’t over yet—it will take months before we know the outcome of court and legislative action on net neutrality. For now, it’s up to citizens of all backgrounds to reach out to their representatives and to voice their opinions on the issue in order to ensure that everyone’s interests are represented in the end, and not just the interests of a few.
The featured image is licensed under the Creative Commons. The original image can be found here.
Alexandra C. Price
Alexandra Price is a second year History and Russian Eastern European Studies double major and prospective German minor particularly interested in the Cold War and modern developments in the former Eastern Bloc. As this year's recipient of the Gate's annual Reporting Grant, she spent the summer in Germany reporting on refugee integration in Berlin. When she's not reading for class or writing for the Gate, Alexandra participates in Model United Nations, is a member of the Women in Public Service Project, and enjoys long bike rides around the city.