The Repeal of Net Neutrality—What Does it Mean For Us?

A Professor's Perspective On Current Events

Image of Professor Paul Rosenzweig, M.S.
By Professor Paul Rosenzweig, M.S.

Net Neutrality has been voted to be repealed by the FCC already. What does this mean for the future of online commerce, learning, and fun? Professor Paul Rosenzweig dives into the topic.

By now you’ve heard the news.  Some say that “net Neutrality is dead.”  What exactly does that mean?  Should you be glad or upset?  This brief post tries to give you the background.

“Net neutrality” is two things.  First, it is a general idea, or principle, that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) should or must treat all internet data the same, regardless of its nature, source, or destination.  Second, it refers to a set of regulations that were adopted by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in 2015, just two years ago (though, to be fair, they had been trying to adopt them since 2010, and their first effort was struck down by the courts in 2014).  So, when we say net neutrality is dead, we certainly mean that the 2015 regulations have been repealed.  The question is what effect that repeal will have on consumers.

In very brief summary, the 2015 regulations said that broadband service providers (think Verizon or Comcast) could not “block” any content; “throttle” content by slowing its download/upload speeds; or allow “paid prioritization” for content using differential fee structures and speed tiers.

This article is part of our Professor’s Perspective series—a place for experts to share their views and opinions on current events.

The order adopted by the FCC last week will, in effect, reverse those rules.  The new FCC order reclassifies broadband providers as an “information service” under Title I of the Communications Act  subject to much less regulation than a Title II “telecommunications service.” Likewise, mobile service would be reclassified under Title I and the FCC would give up any role in broadband privacy regulation to the Federal Trade Commission.

Opponents of the FCC who favor the 2015 net neutrality rules argue that broadband service providers should not be in the position of controlling or limiting how consumers get content.  They should not, for example, be allowed to censor content, or charge new users more to transmit their information than long-term customers.  They see the network as a common good that should be equally available to all consumers on an equal footing.

If you tallied up all the hours you spend on the web, how much would it be? What device is most of your time spent on?
If you tallied up all the hours you spend on the web, how much would it be?

Proponents of the change back to the pre-2015 system argue that prioritization is just the market at work.  Why, they ask, shouldn’t you be allowed to pay for faster downloads if you want to spend the money?  And why should Netflix be allowed to hog all the bandwidth without paying more for it?  As to content, they note that Twitter and Facebook already censor (think ISIS murder videos) and curate (think “trending topics”) so why shouldn’t Verizon be able to as well?

And, finally, they argue that allowing differential pricing will spur investment – if the broadband service providers can expect to expand their consumer base, they’ll invest more money in creating new products and upgrading their infrastructure.

In many ways, the debate is a lot like the debate over High Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes on highways.  If you think that nobody should be allowed to pay a toll to avoid traffic, you probably favor net neutrality as well.  If you think that market pricing is more efficient and creates better consumer goods in the long run, you are glad to see the regulations reversed.

What lies ahead?  Litigation for sure.  And maybe another reversal if the Democrats regain a majority of the FCC in 2021.  For now, though, I feel comfortable saying the Internet will not stop working tomorrow – there is no apocalypse at hand.  Slowly, over the next several  years, the economics will work themselves out, with exact results that nobody can really predict with great confidence.

For more with Professor Paul Rosenzweig, check out his courses, Cyber-Security and The Surveillance State, Wondrium.