When my brother joined some friends and me for dinner last week — he was the last to join our party of nine — instead of a traditional greeting of, “hello,” he pointed to each of the eight of us sitting at the table and said, “17-108. Call the FCC, mention that number, and tell them you support net neutrality.”
It was the day the Federal Communications Commission had announced a plan to undo net neutrality rules that were put in place under the Obama administration. Under the rules, commonly called “net neutrality,” the FCC treated the web like the public utility it has become in the 21st century. Just as the FCC put rules in place in the 1930s to regulate telephone companies when telephones were the main way Americans communicated with one another, the net neutrality rules passed in 2015 regulated the web in the same way because it’s the main way Americans currently communicate with one another.
Under the new plan, which is expected to pass when the FCC votes on it on Dec. 14, internet service providers will be able to charge more for access to certain websites, charge websites for preferential speeds, throttle access speeds for certain websites, and even block some websites altogether. As long as they’re “transparent” about it. Under current regulations, all websites (as long as they’re serving legal content) must be treated equally by service providers.
The free speech concerns are obvious. What's to stop a service provider from blocking a website it just doesn't like? Like, say, a news website? Or a political website that doesn't further the company's political leanings?
Of course, that doesn’t feel as immediately threatening as the concern that ISPs could slow certain websites or charge customers more to access certain sites — and that is only going to hurt the everyday internet user. If an ISP decides to charge a company — let's say a movie streaming service — more to reach customers at quicker speeds, that charge will certainly get passed on to the consumer.
The FCC's new rules will affect you, in one way or another. Probably you'll end up paying more for services that feel essential to us in 2017.
ISP giants have said they’d never dream of doing any of these things — yet, they have been fighting for this kind of deregulation for years.
Back in 2015, just after the net neutrality rules were enshrined, I said in this space that, even though those regulations were in place, the cost of internet service was prohibitive to lower income Southern Illinoisans, especially at high speeds. Especially in rural areas, where many of us have extremely limited options for internet service providers (in 2015, I lamented that I had to choose between snail-slow speeds or a data cap).
We’ll be informed of the ways our service providers are charging more or less for access to certain apps or websites, but, just as we are now, we’ll be powerless to stop it. We currently accept data caps and high prices because we have no choice — we need internet access, and at quicker speeds as technology ever-evolves, and we’re going to pay for it (if we can). And the ISPs know that. Meanwhile, those of us who can’t pay for it will continue to be disadvantaged educationally and economically by remaining offline, or at least, a little less online than our richer internet-surfers.
Worst of all, the FCC couldn’t care less how popular net neutrality is with consumers. Part of me is suspicious of Trump-appointed current FCC chair Ajit Pai’s former employment with Verizon, one of the internet service providers who stand to benefit from the deregulation that’s certainly coming our way next month.
My brother's reminder at that dinner last week to send some feedback to the FCC felt pretty futile. But maybe it feels better than doing nothing.
Those who support deregulation say the market will police itself. Consumer outcry will prevent ISPs from throttling websites or charging us to access essentials, they argue. I can only hope that the assured darkness ahead will hurt us badly enough to cry out, rather than continue to grumble and open our wallets.
ALEE QUICK is digital editor of The Southern. Her columns include her own opinions and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinion or editorial position of The Southern. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 618-351-5807. Follow her on Twitter: @the_quickness