The Federal Communications Commission has voted along party lines to undo sweeping Obama-era “net neutrality” rules that provided equal access to internet.
The agency’s Democratic commissioners dissented in the 3-2 vote Thursday.
The FCC vote will end regulations that kept service providers like Verizon, AT&T, Comcast and Charter from favoring some sites and apps over others.
FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, a Republican, says the repeal will eliminate unnecessary regulation. He called the internet the “greatest free-market innovation in history” and said it “certainly wasn’t heavy-handed government regulation” that’s been responsible. “Quite the contrary,” he said.
The rule changes “are restoring the light-touch framework that has governed the internet for most of its existence,” Pai said.
Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, a Democrat who was appointed by President Barack Obama, lambasted the “preordained outcome” of the vote that she says hurts people, small and large businesses, and marginalized populations.
The end of net neutrality, she said, hands over the keys to the internet to a “handful of multi-billion dollar corporations.”
So, just what the does the FCC do? How does this change affect how we use the Internet?
Here’s a quick primer.
WHAT IS THE FCC?
The Federal Communications Commission is a government agency, overseen by Congress. It is the “primary authority for communications law, regulation and technological innovation,” according to the FCC website. The agency regulates radio frequencies (for those who remember the 1990 film “Pump Up the Volume”) and television content (see: George Carlin’s “Seven Words You Can Never Say” bit).
The commission was formed by the Communications Act of 1934, covered telephone, telegraph and radio. As the act got amended over the years (most notably with the Telecommunications Act of 1996) to include television and other new technologies the FCC gained new authority.
The commission has seven subchapters that regulate virtually all aspects of the communications and broadcasting industry, according to the Office of Justice Programs. This includes commercials; rates and fees; and broadcasting in the public interest.
Enter the et eutrality debate.
WHAT IS NET NEUTRALITY?
At its base, et eutrality is the premise that all information on the internet is treated equally.
For example, a internet provider such as Comcast can’t charge Netflix for a faster path to its customers, or block it or slow it down, according to AP.
It’s the status quo, how the internet has worked since its creation, according to AP. But there is the fear that those who control how you connect you to the internet could block or slow down apps and sites that rival their own services. The current FCC rules, passed in 2015 under the Obama administration, keeps that possibility in check by making sure cable and phone companies don’t manipulate traffic.
Those who advocated for netneutrality say undoing these rules makes it harder for the government to crack down on internet providers who act against consumer interests and that it will will harm innovation. Some fear it could lead to a a tiered internet, where users have to pay for the specific kinds of content they use.
Some point to Spain and Portugal, where the Lisbon-based telecommunications firm MEO has been rolling out mobile packages that provide users with add-on data plans limited to specific apps, according to Quark. The content is not blocked, but using data for apps outside the package costs more than those in the preferred packages, according to the story.
Those who criticize the rules, including FCC chairman Pai, say undoing them is good for investment in broadband networks.
“Under my proposal, the federal government will stop micromanaging the Internet,” Pai wrote in a statement announcing the new rules.
“Instead, the FCC would simply require Internet service providers to be transparent about their practices so that consumers can buy the service plan that’s best for them.”
Tech writer Molly Wood, who’s started an intensive Twitter thread on the topic, says the Net Neutrality argument comes down to whether you believe that service providers can be trusted.
Information from the Associated Press was included in this report.