In late 2017, the Federal Communications Commission voted to repeal the commission’s net neutrality rules.
Net neutrality requires internet service providers to treat all internet traffic the same: ISPs cannot charge different rates for access to specific websites, slow down or speed up certain traffic or block access to certain parts of the internet. The regulation was put in place in 2015, when the FCC reclassified internet access as a public utility (a “common carrier telecommunications service”), bringing it under its jurisdiction. Until then, internet access was considered an information service, falling outside the FCC’s regulatory powers.
In late December, the FCC restored that classification, repealing the regulation.
The repeal could cause changes to internet service on the Key Peninsula. A best-case scenario would be increased competition and investment in the area from a variety of ISPs, which would theoretically keep prices in check. A less favorable outcome is increased prices, lower speeds and no access to some websites and services.
Several states, including Washington, are making efforts to put in place net neutrality regulations through their state legislatures. The FCC’s repeal order is intended to prevent states from doing this, but it is unclear whether or not that order can be enforced. According to Pierce County Councilmember Derek Young (D-Gig Harbor), if the Legislature passes a net neutrality bill, ISPs will likely sue the state. The resulting court battle would determine the legality of state net neutrality policies.
Proponents of net neutrality argue that the FCC’s repeal of regulations will allow ISPs to charge more or slow down access to popular websites or services. They claim that the repeal will allow ISPs to sell website access in package deals, similar to cable TV channels, and prevent users from accessing any sites or services that were not paid for.
Net neutrality advocates also warn that a repeal of the rules could allow ISPs to push customers toward using certain services by providing full-speed access to their own services and slowing down access to others. For example, companies like Comcast that operate their own streaming video services could slow access to third-party streaming services like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime. Comcast customers could be forced to pay an extra fee to get full-speed access to those services, while Comcast services would be provided at no additional charge.
More importantly, advocates of net neutrality also see the policy as a means of preserving free speech in an open and active internet community.
“The reality is that market forces will prevent too much misbehavior in major urban areas, but the threat is real in more suburban and rural areas,” Young said, adding that areas with only one major ISP option will be at increased risk of limited content and higher pricing.
Opponents of net neutrality say the policy prevents innovation and competition, and stifles the free market forces that have developed the internet in its current state. They argue that the price of complying with increased regulatory burden is prohibitive for many companies, leading to decreased investment into new ISPs or infrastructure development in rural areas.
A number of ISPs operate on the Key Peninsula, but generally only one or perhaps two are available in a given area.
Net neutrality opponents believe that the regulation stifles the ability of large corporations to implement fees on content providers who take up a large amount of bandwidth. Young explained the argument in terms of a water system. “If somebody’s using a ton of water in your water system, you should be able to charge them more, and that will help pay for the buildout of the rest of the system,” he said.
Young said that argument is “a legit criticism,” but maintains his pro-net neutrality stance.
Net neutrality opponents see the 2015 regulations as an unnecessary expansion of government authority. They also claim that none of the issues raised by net neutrality advocates existed in any major form before the regulations were put in place three years ago, suggesting that there was little justification for the rules in the first place.
The issue has been hotly contested, roughly along party lines; the three Republican members of the FCC voted to repeal net neutrality, outvoting the two Democrat commissioners. Locally, U.S. Rep. Kilmer (D-Gig Harbor) has also voiced his opposition to the changes. Tech companies and services such as Amazon, Facebook, Netflix and Microsoft have come out against the repeal, while most major ISPs support it.
It is impossible to predict the fate of the repeal at this time. Members of the Washington state delegation have introduced net neutrality-related bills in Congress, and the FCC ruling has been challenged in the courts and in state legislatures.
On Jan. 16, Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson, along with a coalition of 21 other states and the District of Columbia, filed a petition to appeal the FCC decision to rescind net neutrality to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. The move is the first step by the states in an attempt to block the FCC’s decision.
“Allowing powerful special interests to act as the internet’s gatekeepers harms consumers, innovation and small business,” Ferguson stated. “We believe the FCC acted unlawfully when it gutted net neutrality, and I look forward to holding the FCC accountable to the rule of law.”