While Ajit Pai attempts to dismantle net neutrality publicly, Republican senators are being far more sneaky

Aditya Saligrama
May 8, 2017 · 4 min read

When Ajit Pai, a former Verizon lawyer, was appointed head of the FCC on January 23 by President Trump, telecom companies cheered. After all, Pai was of one their own, and he offered the potential promise of overturning some of the rules imposed by former chairman Tom Wheeler that threatened their monopolies.

Indeed, the internet status quo in the US is already quite lackluster. In most of the US, ISPs have settled into a cozy duopoly. In late 2014, a staggering 80% of Americans had only one ISP option for internet speeds over 25 Mbps. This situation looks even worse in rural areas, where there are usually only two choices for 10 Mbps up/4 Mbps down.

Today, ISPs are gladly overcharging for lackluster internet. At the time of the writing of this post, one can get 100 Mbps up/100 Mbps down in my area for about $85/mo through Verizon FiOS (with gigabit coming soon at the same price). The same speeds would cost about $39/mo in the UK through Virgin Mobile. South Koreans can get gigabit speeds for only $20/mo.

Besides offering internet service, Verizon and Comcast also provide cable TV, an operation that is failing quickly in the present day. This has generally been attributed to the rise of streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime Video, which offer very competitive prices compared to cable.

So, being large and monolithic companies, Verizon and Comcast don’t want to quickly bury their longtime cable cash cow. Instead, they could turn their misfortunes around by undermining streaming TV.

And this is where the appointment of Pai as FCC chief becomes important. An easy way to cut down Netflix and similar ventures would be to restrict connection speeds between customers and streaming TV. After all, streaming TV does need decent speeds in order to not become a pixelated slideshow.

The desire to undermine Netflix and Prime, among other services, had already cropped up in early 2015, after Wheeler’s FCC ruled in favor of consumers by preventing ISPs from prioritizing certain sites over others. However, with Wheeler, Obama, and Democrat oversight gone, Pai can attempt to reverse these rules.

On Thursday, May 18, the FCC will hold an open meeting and vote on the declassification of internet service providers as Title II public utilities, which will lessen government oversight. If they succeed, the FCC will no longer be able to enforce net neutrality regulations on ISPs — that is, ISPs will be able to artificially slow down sites such as Netflix and Prime in order to self-serve their own cable TV interests. Since Comcast has a large stake in Hulu, Verizon may decide to restrict access to that service as well.

Streaming TV sites will probably not be the only sites to get their speeds slashed. Companies that offer both phone and internet service may decide to block or slow down VoIP service, which provides Wi-Fi calling for cell phones and relied upon by mobile carriers such as Republic Wireless, T-Mobile, and Google Fi.

Ideologically motivated companies could also decide to block content they find objectionable by slowing them down. The removal of net neutrality can essentially be a restriction on free speech in this manner.

But the FCC’s vote is simply a distraction. Deregulation won’t go into effect immediately; instead, the public will be able to give feedback which the FCC must address. The real danger lies in a newly proposed bill, designated as S.993. It was introduced on May 1 by Utah Republican senator Mike Lee, and co-sponsored by 10 senators, including self-avowed libertarian Rand Paul.

S.993 is titled “A bill to prohibit the Federal Communications Commission from reclassifying broadband Internet access service as a telecommunications service and from imposing certain regulations on providers of such service.” In plain English, this is a bill to strip the FCC of its oversight over ISPs, and preventing any future oversight unless the bill is repealed. This is exactly what Pai wants, but free from any public feedback — it only needs to pass through the Republican-controlled Senate to the Republican-controlled House to sworn net neutrality enemy President Trump.

So what can we as ordinary civilians do to keep our internet free?

First, one can donate to public interest groups such as the ACLU and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, or EFF. These groups heavily influenced the FCC to vote in favor of net neutrality in 2015. This will mostly take care of the FCC side of things.

Also on the FCC side, one can comment on their proposition to kill net neutrality. Internet advocates spammed their comment box in 2015, leading their database to crawl to a halt. The FCC needs to know how much you care about internet freedom.

Finally, on the Congress side, call your senators and representatives to vote against S.993. If you’re living in a red state, where Congressmen are likely to vote in favor of the bill, tell them that their re-election efforts will hang in the balance if they decide to vote this way. If you’re living in a blue state like me, with Congressmen likely to vote in favor of net neutrality, inform them how much you appreciate their dedication to keeping your internet free.

While the new legislation to kill internet freedom is truly scary, it’s certainly not too late to fight it.

Update: SNL host John Oliver inspired Americans to once again spam the FCC’s comment box after this article was published, leading it to grind to a halt into the morning of Monday, May 8th. Efforts are being made to preserve net neutrality on the FCC side of things, but it’s as important right now to not let the S.993 bill be ignored.

The Sourcist

A blog about technology, the open source movement, and public policy

Aditya Saligrama

Written by

The Sourcist

A blog about technology, the open source movement, and public policy

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