Net Neutrality is Dead. What Comes Next?

The Federal Communications Commission finally released the long-awaited new rules for regulating the internet, following its 3-2 vote in December to repeal net neutrality.

Net neutrality, which has become controversial in recent years, is the term for the concept that internet service providers should provide equal access for all types of content served via their networks. Many consumers see this as an important protection, while some ISPs have been vocal in their opposition to the FCC imposing net neutrality on them.

The new plan, outlined in a 71-page document called “Restoring Internet Freedom,” was posted on the Federal Register along with a video statement from FCC Chairman Ajit Pai explaining his reasoning on why the new rules are needed.

“In 1996, [Democratic] President Clinton and a Republican Congress agreed the internet would be ‘unfettered’… from federal and state regulation,” Pai said. Since that time, however, the Federal government has pressured the FCC to regulate the internet in numerous ways, by preventing internet service providers from delivering certain types of content faster than others and slowing down or “throttling” bandwidth for certain users.

Pai’s statement notes that the tech giants we know today, such as Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, and Google, were only able to become successful “precisely because we had a free market that allowed entrepreneurs… to innovate.”

It was only in 2015, Pai notes, that the FCC, under different leadership, made net neutrality official for the first time.

Beginning this year, the FCC will be returning to the framework of rules it had used for the 20 years before 2015. Pai’s announcement underscores his belief in the “need to restore the light-touch, market-based framework that started in the 1990s.”

Confused about what all of this means, and how we got here? You’re in good company. Public response to the FCC’s initial vote to implement net neutrality, then the vote to repeal it just two years later has been nothing short of chaotic.

In fact, during the public comment period leading up to December’s vote, the FCC’s website received between 2 million and 4 million comments—so many that it overloaded the server and took the website down.

Comments and responses made by various public figures, politicians, and prognosticators have been stupefying in their level of rhetoric and apocalyptic predictions. Some have predicted the end of the internet as we know it.

A tweet from the Senate Democrats, for example, said: “If we don’t save net neutrality, you’ll get the internet one word at a time,” with each word taking up an entire paragraph, making users scroll down to read the entire message, for an exaggerated effect.

While such a prediction is alarming, The Washington Post’s Fact Checker quickly responded to the tweet, awarding it “Three Pinocchios,” for having “significant factual error and/or obvious contradictions” and venturing into “mostly false” territory.

So while much of the rhetoric in response to the reversal of net neutrality may be overblown, it does leave the average internet user wondering: “How will this affect me?”

This seemingly simple question has been profoundly difficult to answer since there isn’t one single definition of what net neutrality is or means. Just how should it be defined?

“That’s a good question, and I think it depends,” said Tom Roiniotis, general manager of Longmont Power & Communications, which oversees NextLight, the city’s gigabit internet service. “A lot of the discussion you hear these days is about throttling, or maybe paid prioritization, or providing fast lanes and slow lanes… but what about the ability to filter content?”

“Whether or not you’re an ISP, or YouTube, or Google… I guess it just depends on who you talk to, what net neutrality means,” Roiniotis said.

While rules preventing throttling speeds and data caps sound good to many, some famous figures who have made a fortune on the internet are not supportive of such regulation.

Internet entrepreneur Mark Cuban, for example, owner of the Dallas Mavericks basketball team and founder of Broadcast.com (which sold to Yahoo for nearly $6 billion) has never been a supporter of net neutrality. He has gone on record several times in favor of repealing the FCC’s regulations since they were first adopted.

“I want there to be fast lanes [on the internet] because there will be applications that need fast lanes,” he told The Washington Post in 2014.

When asked to comment on this article about whether he still supports repealing net neutrality, Cuban confirmed in a message, and explained: “Because technology always moves faster than the government.”

For average users of websites and social networks, there is unlikely to be an accurate assessment of how the FCCs new rules will affect their use until ISPs start to take actions which remain to be seen.

Most of the large ISPs such as AT&T, Verizon, and Comcast have come out with statements identifying their commitment to a content-neutral policy. Of course, without regulations in place, these commitments can theoretically change at any time.

NextLight’s Roiniotis is actually optimistic that ISPs will do right by their users, merely due to the fact that consumers have become so sensitive to the issue and are analyzing their actions with such scrutiny.

“I think just that concern and that scrutiny will hold companies at bay from doing things that are egregious until we move forward, and we can modify and evolve these rules,” he says.

“There’s a little bit of a scare out there. A lot of it is very partisan. But at the end of the day, I’m pretty hopeful that we’re not going to see any major impact on the internet as we know it and want it to be. … but it’s very healthy to keep our eyes on those laws.”