The decade-long effort to keep the internet free and equal suffered a big setback yesterday as federal courts ruled that the FCC’s existing net neutrality rules are invalid. Net neutrality, as we’ve told you, is the doctrine that your internet service provider can’t charge more for some content than others, and can’t censor content without your permission. in 2010, the FCC put in rules designed to keep the internet running, but those rules were flawed and Verizon successfully challenged it. So what does that mean?
The worst-case scenario folks will tell you that the internet as we know it is doomed, that companies like Charter and Verizon (and eventually Comcast, who suffers under different rules since it bought NBC) will charge you double for Netflix and Youtube and will totally strangle “the little guy” since smaller web sites won’t be able to pay the extortion charges from these ISPs.
The best-case scenario folks will say that the internet is too competitive and companies won’t be able to put rules like that in place because you’ll just go to the competition. They point out that even though they could, most ISPs don’t have crushing data caps and they won’t take advantage of their newfound freedoms.
The truth will probably be somewhere in the middle. The simple fact of all of this remains that YouTube and Netflix make up over half of the internet traffic in the US and a lot of small carriers struggle to meet demand. This ruling will allow them to find new ways to expand while keeping costs down, and to let people watch their streaming TV without allowing massive piracy. In that way, it’s a good thing. This ruling will also allow them to more closely control malware from overseas.
And, you know, there will be some mean-spirited ISPs determined to crush the internet’s very soul, but no one expects that your current internet situation will change dramatically. Even Verizon, who won in the lawsuit, doesn’t plan to make huge changes yet, and there’s a very good reason for that.
If the FCC wants to preserve net neutrality, all it has to do is make a simple rule change that reclassifies internet service as “telecommunication” just like phone service. This would take no act of Congress, nothing more than a few people in a room in Washington. This might not be a popular move, though, unless it was already supported by plenty of politicians, so it’s not likely to happen tomorrow.
In the meantime people like the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Mozilla are smart to raise a red flag, because without a little public outcry, we’re sure to get the worst-case scenario. You should be a little worried about where this is all going, and if you don’t like the way things are set up, you should let your representatives know. The free and open internet has revolutionized our world in ways we still don’t even understand, and if that free information is stifled, we’re all worse off for it.
We encourage you to learn more with this smattering of articles from both sides.