The Federal Communications Commission voted 3-2 today to roll back “net neutrality” rules that kept ISPs from blocking or charging extra fees for access to certain websites or types of Internet content.
Opponents of net neutrality said the rules involved onerous anti-business regulations and suggested that consumers will somehow benefit as ISPs are given more power to shape the way the Internet is delivered to their customers — and, presumably, more revenue from those customers to invest in infrastructure. Supporters of net neutrality loudly protested the repeal, to no avail.
The FCC’s vote was good news for the country’s biggest ISPs, who reportedly spent more than $26 million lobbying the government over the last eight months. But net neutrality supporters now imagine a future where individuals, smaller companies and start-ups all have a harder time taking advantage of the Internet’s power as a communications tool.
Opponents of net neutrality say these fears are overblown. Comcast Senior Executive VP David L. Cohen sounded downright angry about it in a statement issued yesterday in which he decried the spread of “repeated distortions and biased information” and “misguided, inaccurate attacks from detractors.” Time will tell.
When it comes to media, who stands to lose under the new rules? Here’s a sample.
Adam Hersh tells the Columbia Journalism Review that the repeal of net neutrality “favors big players that can negotiate effectively with ISPs, and reduces content providers’ ability to innovate without permission.” Local media organizations trying to distribute video over the web could find themselves throttled by mammoth ISPs modeling their bandwidth to favor favored providers who pay fees for access.
Education providers say it could become more difficult — or at least more expensive — for students to access bandwidth-chewing distance-learning materials like videoconferences and streaming lectures. Mike Caulfield, director of blended and networked learning at Washington State University Vancouver, told Wired, “Killing net neutrality will throw us back to the Dark Ages. And the people that is likely to hurt most are actually rural populations that don’t have face-to-face access to things like nursing programs.”
YouTubers and Twitchers
Anyone who relies on the ability to cost-efficiently stream many hours of content to subscribers via services like YouTube and Twitch is worried about the impact of a future where ISPs could start charging for access to high-quality video streams online. “Because our streamer community — many of which are small business owners — depend on their viewers having easy access to their channels and reliable quality of service, repealing net neutrality will erode the power of the internet to enable and create these types of jobs,” said Twitch CEO Emmett Shear in a statement released Tuesday. Google echoed the sentiment in a statement last month: “The FCC’s net neutrality rules are working well for consumers and we’re disappointed in the proposal announced today.”
Don’t worry about Netflix. Established, mainstream companies with a strong user base will find their way into your living room. But as more power shifts into the hands of those media companies that can afford to make deals with service carriers, the ability of marginalized communities to leverage the Internet to gain social and political influence could be diminished. For example, consider the #metoo movement against sexual harassment and sexual assault. “The open Internet has allowed women to bypass traditional patriarchal gatekeepers in media and the economy to speak for themselves and gain access to opportunities and income streams that might otherwise be unavailable to them,” Malkia Cyril, the executive director of The Center for Media Justice, said in an interview with Newsweek. “A repeal … will open the door for a heightened level of online discrimination and censorship that can only reduce voice and opportunity for women.”
One of the most wide-ranging fears is that ISPs will start to create service “bundles” that allow them to add incremental charges to customers’ bills for access to certain websites or applications. That could make your Internet bill start to look more like your cable bill. As Howard Feld, senior VP with nonprofit organization Public Knowledge, told Fox News, “If it’s one thing that cable companies have proven to be good at over the years, it’s more ways to get money out of consumers and into their own pockets.”