The FCC’s repeal of net neutrality is set to go into effect on June 11, at which point the future of a free internet in the US will hang in the balance. Net neutrality regulation, instituted in 2015 by the Obama-era FCC, enforces the principle that internet service providers, or ISPs, must be agnostic to the content they carry. One example of this regulation would be to ensure Comcast does not throttle other streaming services in favor of its offerings of Hulu and cable TV, or charge more for unfettered access to all services.
The FCC under the Trump administration voted to repeal net neutrality in December 2017, arguing that their action will “increase transparency to protect consumers.” In reality, however, it will exacerbate the existing internet status quo in the US. Monopolization of service providers continues to run rampant, with over 50 million Americans having only one broadband provider. Those who cannot afford to pay higher prices for unrestricted internet service will be at a major disadvantage compared to those who can. It will significantly increase the growing socioeconomic education divide, augmenting what Democratic FCC commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel calls the “homework gap.”
However, some proponents of the repeal contend that stringent net neutrality protections harm small businesses. Dan Berninger, who leads a startup that delivers internet-based voice services, is currently suing the FCC alleging that Americans’ First Amendment rights are infringed upon by Title II net neutrality regulations through prior restraint. His suit will soon be heard by the Supreme Court. Yet, I think that neutrality protections actually help small businesses as they would constrain potential collusion between ISPs and content producers, allowing for a more competitive playing field for upstarts in both markets.
Fortunately, several efforts are underway to challenge the FCC’s ruling. In December, Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts introduced a Congressional Review Act to overturn the FCC’s repeal. The motion passed the Senate in May and is currently awaiting a vote in the House. Legal challenges are also ongoing, with 22 attorneys general filing suit in federal court.
Our role as ordinary citizens is as important as those of our elected officials. Public engagement was high in the weeks surrounding the FCC’s vote, but has since faded. While gun violence and trade deals have rightfully occupied recent main pages, it is the loss of net neutrality that can cause more insidious and lasting damage. Access to free, unrestricted information is a cornerstone of democracy, and in recent elections we have already witnessed the consequences of amplifying certain points of view at the expense of others. Repealing net neutrality can lead to controlling the free flow of information resulting in an erosion of our democracy.