Why is Net Neutrality important?

In a few days, on December 14th, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) will vote to change how the internet is regulated in the United States. The impact on how regular users like you and me access information online could be massive, and here’s why.

Currently, there is policy around open communications, mandating that the treatment of traffic should be non-discriminatory: broadband providers cannot get in the way, they cannot censor or make deals that benefit certain types of content over others. For example, Comcast is not allowed today to treat Netflix differently than any other new video streaming startup.

The FCC Chairman, Ajit Pai (who worked as Associate General Counsel at Verizon), is proposing to vote to remove these rules in favor of a less regulated internet. Fewer regulations means, according to their main argument, that the amount of investments made by telecommunication companies will stop decreasing. However, the same data that the FCC used shows that investments have been flat at worse (or actually increased at best) since 2013.

The FCC also argues that if any corporation starts misbehaving, consumers can take their business elsewhere. Nonetheless, more than 50% of the US population only has access to one single internet provider, so they cannot even vote with their wallets. The only way to defend consumers rights will be through litigation and class action lawsuits.

Is everything bad in the new proposed plan? No, there is one important point that will be critical to detect future abuses: broadband providers are obligated to be transparent about their traffic practices; in other words, if Comcast made a deal to promote Netflix over any other streaming service, or if they started blocking or throttling certain sites, it would have to be public knowledge (even if that just means one more line in the fine print at the end of a contract).

Surprisingly, the FCC Chairman has refused to participate in any interview where tech journalists can ask questions about the new plan. Even more unfortunate is the fact that net neutrality rules have become a partisan issue: the rules have started to change every time a new administration is elected.

The latest episode of the podcast “Too Embarrassed to Ask” included an interview by Kara Swisher and Lauren Goode to Jessica Rosenworcel, a Democratic member of the FCC, and I was lucky enough to get one of my Twitter questions picked up for the interview: how do you prevent net neutrality rules from changing with every new administration?

The Commissioner reinforced the idea that net neutrality rules started off non-partisan. She mentioned that the 1st time that the FCC put these rules on paper, was during the presidency of George W. Bush. She continued: “this was not, in fact, an especially partisan issue for a decade. […] And so the attack that we are seeing right now, it’s unfortunate to me that it’s partisan and that somehow we are viewing this now through a prism where by one type of administration says yes, the next says no. I don’t think that kind of back and forth is good for the economy, I think we can use some stability on these issues, but that stability should include some fundamental commitment to internet openness.

The FCC seems determined to remove the current net neutrality rules, and we won’t know how bad it will get until it’s already too late.

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