By: Cecilia Kang
The Federal Communications Commission voted Thursday to discard so-called net neutrality rules that prevented broadband providers from slowing sites or demanding payments from them for fast delivery. The decision opens the door for very different consumer experiences on the internet. The rules will go into effect in the coming weeks.
Here is a guide to what will happen next:
Is my Netflix going to start sputtering? Will my internet service bill go up?
Consumers will probably not encounter immediate changes to their internet service. The biggest broadband companies, like Comcast and AT&T, have promised that consumers will not see a change in how they experience the web. And with such a big spotlight on them, the companies will probably be careful about changing service plans, partly to avoid angering customers and attracting lawmakers’ attention.
Broadband companies are “likely to proceed cautiously pending final resolution of these legal challenges,” said John Beahn, a regulatory lawyer at Skadden, Arps, who does not have clients with interests in net neutrality. “They recognize the ultimate fate of the regulations is still far from certain at this point.”
But significant changes could come over time. For instance, AT&T could decide to charge a company like Etsy or Netflix more to deliver traffic from the website’s servers around the internet. Internet service providers, many of which are also media companies, could create faster lanes of delivery for their own sites, which would make it harder for the content of their rivals to show up in front of consumers. In the past, some providers have even blocked sites, as when AT&T prevented Apple’s FaceTime service from working for some customers of its wireless networks in 2012.
One Republican commissioner, Mike O’Rielly, said he supported some forms of paid prioritization, which could open the door for an internet model more like cable television, with different price tiers for certain websites.
Are there benefits for consumers?
To be sure, there are programs that consumers may like. AT&T already offers its customers free streaming of DirecTV, which it owns. Other carriers like T-Mobile offer free streaming of apps like YouTube and Netflix, a practice known as “zero-rating,” which at one time was viewed as a potential net neutrality violation. More programs like that could come along.
But it’s hard to see prices going down for internet service because of the end of net neutrality. Many economists say the only way prices could fall is through more competition in the broadband industry, which is now dominated by a handful of companies.
What protections do consumers have?
The net neutrality rules, passed in 2015 during the Obama administration, were intended to be a protective measure for consumers as more Americans migrated to the internet for communications. The regulations were also meant to make sure new and small companies, as well as media companies, could sell their goods and distribute information without restrictions from broadband companies.
Ajit Pai, the current chairman of the F.C.C., said transparency would act as the primary measure against wrongdoing. The agency will require broadband companies to disclose if they are blocking or throttling or setting up fast lanes for certain traffic. Mr. Pai, a Republican nominated to the chairmanship by President Trump, said that the disclosure would give consumers full knowledge of what they would be getting into and that if they didn’t like the practices, they could switch providers
As part of the changes approved on Thursday, the F.C.C. handed oversight duties for the broadband carriers to the Federal Trade Commission. The F.C.C. said the F.T.C.’s broad antitrust and consumer protection laws were best suited to stop any harmful business practices. The F.T.C. has to monitor nearly every sector of the economy and is most likely to go after alleged bad actors when they are brought forward in a complaint, a costly and time-consuming process.
What have the internet service providers said?
Comcast, AT&T and the major trade groups for broadband and cable providers say they don’t and will not block or throttle sites. They say they won’t engage in most forms of paid prioritization, the practice of charging sites more for faster delivery of streams and downloads.
With legal challenges against the F.C.C. expected, many telecom experts say that the companies will largely to stick to those promises for at least the next year and that any changes to service will be subtle.
Is there any chance the 2015 rules will come back?
The net neutrality debate has flared up multiple times over the last decade or so, ending in different places depending on the political party in power.
Many Democrats on Capitol Hill have called for passing the Obama-era rules through legislation, instead of leaving the rule making in the hands of the F.C.C. Numerous Republicans have also suggested passing a law, though they generally argue for much lighter restrictions than the 2015 rules. Some Democratic lawmakers have also said they would overturn the F.C.C. action through a congressional review act, which would require a majority vote to abolish new agency rules. Given the Republican control in Washington, and the general gridlock in Washington, any sort of legislative resolution appears unlikely.
Most certainly, there will be lawsuits, including by public interest groups such as Public Knowledge and the National Hispanic Media Coalition and by several state attorneys general, including those from New York and Pennsylvania. The suits are expected to be filed after the rules become official, which could be well into January or later.
What are the potential legal arguments?
Lawsuits will most likely claim, perhaps among other things, that the F.C.C. acted hastily and capriciously by abandoning the rules just two years after they were created. For instance, Eric Schneiderman, the New York attorney general, has said the F.C.C. should have delayed its vote on the ground that the law enforcement office found many public comments on net neutrality were fraudulent.
And what about the F.C.C.? What is its main legal defense?
It will probably argue that rolling back rules essentially returns the regulatory environment to the way it was before 2015, when there was little evidence of consumer harm.
The agency is also likely to argue that it followed all the necessary procedures for making a regulatory change. The plan to overturn net neutrality was first announced in April by Mr. Pai.
In a news conference on Thursday, after he had won the vote to overturn the rules, Mr. Pai said he was prepared for the legal challenges, using a tone of defiance and some sarcasm.
“I’m shocked, shocked, that people are going to challenge this decision in court,” he said.