What’s Next After the End of Net Neutrality?
On Thursday, the Federal Communications Commission voted 3-2 to reverse the 2015 decision to regulate the Internet as a public utility. Net Neutrality’s supporters are enraged while opponents are pleased to return to the status quo.
Supporters fear that Internet service providers will now be able to arbitrarily deny their customers access to websites they want, will charge companies and customers differently based on bandwidth requirements, and will stifle competition through monopolistic power over the Internet. CNN even declared that it would be the “end of the Internet as we know it.”
The ominous warnings are unlikely to reach fruition. With the end of Net Neutrality, there will likely be little difference in user experience than what users experienced before the 2015 order. So what will change?
The biggest and most obvious change is that Internet Service Providers are no longer classified under Title II, which means they're no longer viewed as public utilities like electric companies or telephone companies (remember Ma Bell?), which are heavily regulated.
More importantly, claims that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is handing corporations control over the Internet is simply not the case. Consumer protections are still in place, and, in fact, ISPs need to be more transparent in their data practices.
As FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr noted on the day of the vote, "We are not giving ISPs free rein to dictate your online experience. Our decision today includes powerful legal checks."
Those checks are established in the Restoring Internet Freedom order, which FCC Chairman Ajit Pai released before the vote to end Net Neutrality (unlike in 2015 when the FCC passed regulations that were then released to the public after the fact). Score one for transparency.
Additionally, the Federal Trade Commission, not the FCC, will be enforcing fairness law against companies accused of abusive practices, as was the process before the 2015 change.
Score two for transparency, as summarized by Reason Magazine :
The FCC will require ISPs to be transparent about their services, meaning that bandwidth throttling or other network management practices, which have sometimes been opaque to consumers, would have to be clearly labeled. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC), meanwhile, would be empowered to regulate anti-competitive or anti-consumer behavior, stepping in when Internet companies make promises to provide a service that they do not keep.
In reality, Net Neutrality was not ever really "neutral." When the order was taken to court, the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia upheld it, but explicitly stated “that an ISP remains ‘free to offer ‘edited’ services’ without becoming subject to the rule’s requirements.”
In essence, the court ruled that ISPs could get around the rules on a case-by-case basis.
While the FTC will investigate accusations of throttling or other abuses by ISPs, it’s more than likely that companies, and consumers, will return to business as usual, providing and using Internet services in a changing tech environment.
"Despite all the 'Sturm und Drang' about preserving Net Neutrality, American consumers are unlikely to notice a difference when the order is adopted," writes Professor Daniel Lyons.
But whereas companies in the last two years had spent hundreds of millions of dollars to comply with the law, and reduced their investments in new tech by billions, it won't be surprising to see other kinds of changes.
With technology rapidly advancing, consumers are likely to witness equally rapid free-market responses to address futuristic challenges and unforeseeable consumer demands that will surely arise in the next wave of innovation.