The repeal of net neutrality was not a popular decision - at least, not among the internet users of the United States, of which there are many. So why, then, was net neutrality repealed? The answer, according to FCC chairman Ajit Pai, is because the rules set out during the tenure of the previous FCC chairman Tom Wheeler were too “heavy-handed,” and worked to penalize telecoms companies at the expense of growth and innovation - in other words, because it wasn’t favorable for ISPs.
Essentially, Pai’s argument is that net neutrality actually prevented ISPs from expanding broadband networks to the areas that needed them. So, one would think that the decision to repeal net neutrality would lead to a boom in infrastructure investment, especially in underserved areas of the country. Yet, an advisory council created by the FCC devoted to deploying broadband in those underserved areas has been criticized for being “loaded” with “business-friendly representatives from the biggest wireless and cable companies”, as well as “broadband experts from conservative think tanks who have been critical of FCC regulations”. Based on this, it’s clear that the FCC currently sees itself as a friend of the telecoms industry, a view which informs every one of their policy decisions. The repeal of net neutrality hasn’t had a direct impact on consumers just yet, but that’s because net neutrality itself hasn’t died completely. Most states have either introduced legislation or filed lawsuits in attempts to preserve the Obama-era regulations. And they’re not alone: Several companies, including Foursquare, Kickstarter, Shutterstock, and Etsy, have filed petitions challenging the FCC’s decision to repeal.
However, when the FCC announced that it would be rolling back net neutrality, it also declared that states would not be able to pass their own legislation to restore it. So, any state that enacts legislation that prevents ISPs from blocking access to or slowing down certain types of content or charging users a premium for accessing certain sites could open themselves up to a lawsuit from an ISP or a sympathetic group. Not that this has stopped states from trying: Washington recently became the first state to pass a law protecting net neutrality, and states such as California and New York have gone one step further by introducing legislation that takes a stronger stance on what’s known as “zero-rating”, which essentially exempts certain internet activity (streaming video on Netflix, listening to music on Spotify, etc.) from a user’s data cap.
In theory, zero-rating sounds pretty cool. If a broadband provider were to offer you unlimited access to Netflix that wouldn’t count against the rest of your data plan, you’d probably jump on that offer. But the problem is that zero-rating gives providers the chance to prioritize certain types of content over others, which can create a scary precedent. In my next blog post, I’ll take a closer look at zero-rating, its growing popularity amongst telecoms companies, and why customers should look a gift horse in the mouth.