Net neutrality has been dead for a little more than a year, and the internet hasn’t collapsed. Does that mean net neutrality wasn’t that important after all?
Far from it. For one, states are making their own laws, there are lawsuits, and ISPs are holding back from any drastic changes until the legal questions are settled. But they are taking small steps here and there that erode how we use the internet, in what tech writer Karl Bode calls “death by a thousand cuts.”
More importantly, the reasoning behind the decision to abandon net neutrality effectively eliminated the Federal Communication Commission’s ability to oversee broadband. We’ve seen time and time again that when big private companies are left to regulate themselves, consumers lose.
“The FCC abdicated its responsibility to protect consumers and competition in the broadband market. “That is the most important thing that happened on December 14th, 2017 when the FCC repealed the Open Internet Order,” Gigi Sohn, a distinguished fellow at Georgetown Law’s Institute for Technology Law and Policy, told The Verge.
One of the thousand cuts, for example, is the loss of access to basic information about what you’re actually paying for. In 2016, the FCC under President Obama established the broadband version of nutrition labels to help consumers make clear and accurate comparisons between prices and services offered by broadband companies. The current FCC did away with the labels, and now such information is spread all over the internet in obscure and user-unfriendly places.
That makes it easier to nickel and dime consumers for unnecessary services like a so-called fast lane, or take away previously included services and add them back for a fee. For example, Comcast caps data for all customers (except customers in the Northeast, where the market is much more competitive), and those who use more data either pay an expensive penalty, or pay an extra $50/month to remove the cap. Data caps don’t have any technical purpose, not even according to Comcast’s own internal documents. So why have them? Probably because, without true competition, data caps allow ISPs to charge more for the same service.
In AT&T’s case, you can also remove the data cap if you use the company’s own streaming video service. If you choose to use Netflix instead, though, you’ll end up with a higher bill. Verizon will stop throttling customers’ video streaming for an extra $10 per month.
In an extreme example of gouging customers, a Texas man spent $200 to buy his own router, but his broadband company, Frontier, charged him a $10/month router rental fee anyway. He complained to the FCC, which declined to take action.
But doesn’t the FCC exist for precisely these situations? Well, it depends on who you ask. The FCC under several previous presidential administrations classified broadband internet service as a “telecommunications service,” which is subject to strict competition regulations. But in 2018, in a partisan 3-2 decision, the current FCC reclassified broadband as an “information service”—without those regulations.
“This is why the major ISPs have waged such a long war against net neutrality, because all of the federal provisions that involve curtailing the power of monopoly by promoting competition also empower the FCC to enforce net neutrality,” said the nonprofit Electronic Frontier Foundation. “Provisions that, again, have their roots in phone monopolies. Provisions that worked.”
Yet the FCC’s own data shows that there’s not much real competition in broadband: 85 percent of US census blocks have only one choice for high-speed internet, or no access at all. All while US consumers already pay some of the highest rates for broadband in the world.
Without meaningful regulation by the FCC, consumers are already suffering the consequences: Phone calls made using VoIP could be recorded without your consent. Potentially dangerous people might get their hands on your real-time geolocation data. Emergency services might get their service throttled.
Or the FCC might give their blessing to what is essentially a kickback scheme in your own city by partially preempting a local ordinance that promotes competition. Dissenting FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel called that decision “crazy.” Yet FCC Chairman Ajit Pai wants to expand that block to all local authorities, forbidding them from regulating internet access.
And if you’re one of the millions of Americans who only have one option for an internet provider, there’s nothing you can do about it—unless Congress passes laws to restore net neutrality. That’s why it’s so important to contact your elected officials and push them to pass strong, consumer-friendly net neutrality laws.