Today marks an official turning point in internet policy in the United States. After months of debate and public backlash, the Federal Communications Commission has officially repealed Obama-era net neutrality rules that required Internet providers to offer equal access to all web content.
The new FCC regulations, officially voted on in December but which took effect today, open the door for internet providers to control or censor what content consumers can access online.
The issue of net neutrality has sparked intense debate in the U.S. since last April when FCC chairman Ajit Pai, a Republican appointed by President Donald Trump, announced that under his leadership the FCC would repeal landmark net neutrality rules created under President Obama in 2015. The old rules, called Protecting and Promoting the Open Internet, prohibited internet providers from blocking or slowing down websites or prioritizing their content over others. Pai argued the restrictions were unnecessary, “heavy-handed” regulations aimed at the telecomm industry that thwarted innovation. Not everyone agreed. Here’s Marguerite Reardon, reporting for CNET:
But supporters of net neutrality—such as big tech companies like Google and Facebook, as well as consumer groups and pioneers of the internet like World Wide Web creator Tim Berners-Lee—say the internet as we know it may not exist without these protections.
“We need a referee on the field who can throw a flag,” former FCC Chairman and Obama appointee Tom Wheeler said at MIT during a panel discussion in support of rules like those he championed. Wheeler was chairman when the rules passed three years ago.
The recent FCC’s staunch opposition to net neutrality has been met with waves of public backlash, at one point amounting to nearly 22 million comments being submitted to the its website, as well as criticism from policy experts who say a repeal of the rules will let internet service providers give preferential treatment to some websites, including their own.
Experts warn a non-neutral net creates an unfair playing field between the mammoth internet companies that can afford to “pay to play” versus start-ups and smaller businesses. For consumers at home, it’s still unclear how and whether this will affect your internet speeds. Most major internet providers have publicly pledged not to cherry-pick consumer content, though activists say without enforcement those are largely empty promises. Some scientists and technologists have expressed concern that the repeal could impact their ability to do research, especially of the politically sensitive kind.
Meanwhile, legal battles against the FCC rollback of net neutrality are still underway. Over 20 state attorneys have filed lawsuits to block the repeal. Several states including New York and Washington, have passed regulations that impose net neutrality on a local level. And in May, the Senate voted in favor of reversing the FCC’s repeal; however, the measure still needs to be passed in the House of Representatives, where afterwards it will then need President Trump’s signature.