Will Trump’s FCC Chair Neuter Net Neutrality?

First, let’s understand what net neutrality (also known as Open Internet) is. In a nutshell, it maintains what the Internet has always been: a free and open-to-all avenue for communication. Net neutrality prevents Internet Service Providers (ISPs) from creating so-called “fast lanes” that provide better service to content creators or web companies that pay extra fees. It also means that ISPs can’t discriminate based on content; for example, slowing your streaming of “House of Cards” because it’s streamed by a video company that competes with your ISP.

What does this mean in practice? Ideally, that everything you want to access on the Internet, from streaming video to audio, should be just as available to you as to any user of the Internet. Net neutrality also means the ISPs can’t discriminate against start-ups and entrepreneurs, who can’t afford to pay the premium fees to get faster broadband service. Just because you’re not a wealthy corporation shouldn’t mean your Internet traffic suffers.

Another related area of net neutrality is what is known as “zero rating,” which sounds good at first, but is really another form of discrimination. In zero rating, the ISP offers its customers discounts on a few selected apps and websites, and excludes the rest of the Internet. Thus, according to IT news site ZDNET, “Your ISP, not you, decides what websites and apps and streaming services you can afford.”

In February 2015, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) established rules that allow it to regulate broadband the way it does other public utilities like railroads and landline telephone service. The rules ban ISPs from slowing connections or even blocking them entirely for those who haven’t paid a premium fee, or for providing faster connections for large corporations who can afford to pay for it.

Who is in favor of net neutrality? Such content providers as Apple, Facebook and Google.

Who is against it? Such broadband companies as Comcast, AT&T, Verizon and Cox, who have spent millions lobbying against it. Why? Because they can make money by charging premium fees to those who can afford them. Also because some of those broadband firms are also content providers, and they don’t want to help their competition be successful. In an example offered by CNN Money, Netflix is in direct competition with Comcast, which owns NBC Universal and controls access to the Internet for more than 20 million customers. Can NBC speed up delivery of its shows and slow down Netflix offerings? No, according to the net neutrality regulations put in place by the Obama administration.

So what’s the problem, if the rules are in place already? The new administration is the problem. Trump named Ajit Pai, a vocal opponent of net neutrality, to head the FCC, and he is already at work dismantling certain aspects of the Obama net neutrality rules.

The New York Times reported this week that, “In total, as the chairman of the FCC, Mr. Pai released about a dozen actions in the last week, many buried in the agency’s website and not publicly announced, stunning consumer advocacy groups and telecom analysts.” Last week he ended the FCC’s investigation into Wireless carriers’ free data offerings (the “zero rating” mentioned above). All without the public comment period stipulated by the Administrative Procedures Act of 1946. Indeed, the speed and secrecy with which these consumer protections are being rolled back might be one of the most troubling aspects of what the new administration is doing.

“With these strong-arm tactics, Chairman Pai is showing his true stripes,” Matt Wood, policy director at the consumer group Free Press, told the Times.

“The public wants an FCC that helps people,” Wood added. “Instead, it got one that does favors for the powerful corporations that its chairman used to work for.” Pai is a former attorney for Verizon.

In essence, doing away with net neutrality means, as The Atlantic magazine put it recently, “dismantl[ing] the Internet as we know it.”

It also means the Golden Rule is in full force.

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