Goodbye, open internet.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted on Thursday to overturn a critical set of regulations known as net neutrality.
The debate over net neutrality–regulations that say all content that flows over broadband networks must be treated fairly and equally–has been one of the most complicated discussions happening in the public sphere and in the business world in recent months.
The FCC is the government agency that regulates radio, telephone, TV and cable communications.
The commission’s five-person board voted 3-to-2 to overturn the regulations, which were put in place in 2015 under the Obama Administration. The commissioners voted along party lines, with a Republican majority prevailing.
“We are helping consumers and promoting competition,” Ajit Pai, the FCC’s chairman appointed by President Trump, said prior to the vote, according to the New York Times. “Broadband providers will have more incentive to build networks, especially to underserved areas.”
Those in favor of the federal guidelines say they keep down costs for consumer broadband access, while ensuring a level playing field for content providers, which range from tiny tech startups to dynamos such as Netflix.
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Those opposed to the rules generally say they have throttled innovation and hamper the ability of internet service providers to invest in and grow their networks.
Numerous consumer groups, tech companies, and Internet activists have threatened to sue the FCC to maintain existing net neutrality regulations. There has also been a push among some members of Congress to introduce legislation that would make net neutrality the official law of the land.
Nevertheless, broadband providers will have immediate discretion to begin offering new packages with new pricing schemes that could potentially favor some content over others, according to the Wall Street Journal.
In a sign of how contentious the vote was, Mignon Clyborn, one of the FCC’s Democratic commissioners, had this to say, in a statement following the decision:
“I dissent from this fiercely-spun, legally-lightweight, consumer-harming, corporate-enabling Destroying Internet Freedom Order. I dissent, because I am among the millions who is outraged. Outraged, because the FCC pulls its own teeth, abdicating responsibility to protect the nation’s broadband consumers.”
Net neutrality explained
It’s the principle that says all data that flows over the internet–composed of computer networks that operate invisibly in the background every time you look at Facebook from your smartphone or watch Netflix shows from your desktop computer, for example–must be treated the same way.
The networks are operated by broadband companies often referred to as internet service providers, or ISPs, and they include companies such as AT&T, Comcast, Verizon, and Time Warner.
Net neutrality regulations said these ISPs couldn’t play favorites, for example by prioritizing their own programming by delivering it more quickly to consumers. They also couldn’t block or slow down downloads of legitimate content, even if it competed with a similar product they may have or own.
Without net neutrality, some experts have postulated the Internet could be carved into “fast lanes” and “slow lanes”, enabling network providers to simply prioritize their own programming over content from competing companies. They’d do that by potentially delivering it at faster speeds, or demanding payment for faster access to networks.