Dec 14, 2017

The twilight of net neutrality rules

A woman in Los Angeles protests FCC Chairman Ajit Pai's plan to repeal net neutrality rules. Photo: Ronen Tivony / NurPhoto via Getty Images

The FCC is expected to approve a plan today to repeal net neutrality rules that will let internet service providers give preferential treatment to some web content or block it entirely.

Why it matters: The exact impact on internet users remains unclear. But providers like AT&T and Comcast will be allowed to make their customers pay more to access certain content or charge companies like Netflix more to reach their customers faster than the competition.

The vote comes as the debate over net neutrality, or the idea that all content on the web should be treated equally, reaches a fever pitch.

  • FCC Chairman Ajit Pai has resisted calls in recent weeks from Democrats — and one Republican lawmaker — to delay the vote.
  • They say that the public comment period on the repeal was corrupted, alleging that millions of comments were submitted to the FCC under stolen identities. Pai has also claimed there are fraudulent comments opposing his proposal.
  • Pai also launched an attack on tech industry in recent weeks in an attempt to paint big web platforms, not ISPs, as the major threat to speech online. That rhetoric was cheered by some of President Trump's backers.

Winners: Internet providers and wireless carriers that have heavily lobbied against the rules. Also Pai, who rose to prominence as the chief foil to the man who instituted the rules, former Chairman Tom Wheeler.

Losers: Startups that say the rules will make it harder for them to compete with the dominant players they're challenging. Also large tech companies that, despite less involvement during this fight, have become associated with the net neutrality rules.

The big question: What will this mean for consumers? They could end up paying more for services like streaming video if those services have to pay internet service providers for "fast lanes." That cost could be passed along to the people who use those services.They also could see more programs where internet providers let a customer access certain content free of charge. Internet providers are increasingly developing content and can use those deals to give customers, effectively, a discount to watch what they produce.

What's next? First, the FCC has to vote today. The repeal is expected to be approved, and will be challenged in court. Some Democratic lawmakers have said they want to use the Congressional Review Act, which gives Congress a way to effectively veto regulations, to strike the repeal from the books. But that's unlikely to happen in a Republican-controlled Congress.

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