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FCC's net neutrality vote: What's at stake & why you should care

FCC's net neutrality vote: What's at stake & why you should care
As the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) prepares to vote on whether net neutrality rules passed by the Obama administration should be overturned, here's a reminder of what exactly is at stake, and why you should care.

Simply defined, net neutrality – also called the open internet – is the concept that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) must treat all online content equally and not give preference to any one digital content provider. The current rules, put in place during Barack Obama's administration, consider the internet to be a public utility and therefore subject to regulation. In short, ISPs have to deliver all websites at the same speed, representing fairness.

However, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, who was appointed to his position by President Donald Trump, proposed in May that the internet's public-utility status should be abolished. If he gets his way, your internet experience could soon be transformed from an equal playing field to a money-driven enterprise.

According to Pai's opponents, there are two ways that money could influence the way you experience the internet. The first scenario is that you, the consumer, could be forced to pay more money to your ISP to ensure that your favorite websites are delivered to you at a suitable speed. Some have speculated that this could come in the form of paying more for an "unlimited" internet package, which gives you access to the things you already have but might soon be taken away.

The other scenario is that corporations could pay more to receive preferential treatment by ISPs, tilting the internet in their favor over their smaller (and poorer) competitors. Imagine that scenario as paid priority "fast lanes." ISPs could also begin favoring content they own over that of their competitors.

Who is in favor of net neutrality?

A large number of popular websites posted protests against scrapping net neutrality on Tuesday, including Reddit, Kickstarter, Etsy, Pinterest, Imgur, and Mozilla. "We’re sorry, but you’ve exceeded your allotted bandwidth for HTTPS://WWW.REDDIT.COM. Please update your internet plan to continue browsing," Reddit wrote on its website, in a foreshadowing of what it believes will happen if Pai gets his way.

Hacktivist group Anonymous also threatened a "destructive" cyberattack against the FCC's website to protest against plans to abolish net neutrality. The threat was tweeted by various accounts apparently linked to the collective.

On Monday, a group of internet pioneers including Apple's Steve Wozniak wrote an open letter calling the vote an "imminent threat to the internet we worked so hard to create." They have called on the FCC to ask Pai to cancel the vote, calling the chairman's plan "rushed and technically incorrect." 

Silicon Valley companies have also come out in support of net neutrality. "We are disappointed that the proposal announced this week by the FCC fails to maintain the strong net neutrality protections that will ensure the internet remains open for everyone," Facebook said in a statement last month.

Google stressed that the current rules are "working well." Netflix tweeted to a follower last month that "this current draft order hasn't been officially voted, so we're lodging our opposition publicly and loudly now."

In an open letter to the FCC in April, a group of 1,000 small businesses – those who would not have as much power to compete on the internet against bigger and wealthier players – from around the US wrote: "We also depend on an open internet – including enforceable net neutrality rules that ensure big cable companies can't discriminate against people like us." 

Celebrities have also spoken out against Pai's plan, including Cher and actor Mark Ruffalo. More than 100 actors, musicians, and other performers wrote a letter to the FCC earlier this month, stating that "without a free and open internet, so much music, writing, film, art, culture, passion, and creativity would be lost." 

Pai hit back at his celebrity critics during an event at the conservative R Street Institute in Washington DC in November. In that speech, he scolded "Hollywood celebrities, whose large online followings give them outsized influence in shaping the public debate," specifically mentioning tweets from Cher and Ruffalo, according to The Hill. 

Meanwhile, everyday people are also part of the fight. Hundreds of protests took place across the US last Thursday. Most of the demonstrations occurred outside Verizon stores, the company which formerly employed Pai as a lawyer.

An online Day of Action to Save Net Neutrality also saw some of the internet's biggest players show their support on July 12. Among those rallying for the current regulations to remain in place were Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. Other participants of the online action included Google, Twitter, Amazon, Airbnb, Netflix, Mozilla, Expedia.

Why abandon net neutrality?

While there are plenty of arguments and concerns against Pai's proposal to scrap net neutrality, those in favor of doing so have their own reasons. They mostly argue that the current regulations are unnecessary and stifle job creation and free-market competition.

Pai stated in November that the current regulations on ISPs have "depressed investment in building and expanding broadband networks." He called the regulations passed under the Obama administration in 2015 "heavy-handed" and a "mistake." He says his proposal would allow the federal government to stop "micromanaging the internet."

He also aims to put power back in the hands of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) rather than the FCC. That idea has also been slammed by his opponents, who say that the FCC actively makes sure ISPs don't abuse their power at present, but the FTC is a more passive system. Furthermore, there's also a debate surrounding how much power the FTC actually has when it comes to taking action against ISPs.

Pai is likely to get his way when the FCC votes on Thursday, as the commission is Republican-controlled and expected to vote along party lines.

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