What does the end of net neutrality really mean?


If you support net neutrality already and are looking for what you can do, post a comment in support of title II designation (proceeding 17-108) or contact your local and national representatives.

What is net neutrality?

Net neutrality means Internet Service Providers (ISPs) must view all data sent from your computer to websites and all data returned from those websites to your computer as identical. This means that you can pay a single monthly price to Comcast, Time Warner, or AT&T and they are required by law to give you access to every website in existence, including Facebook, Twitter, Netflix and everything else.

For this single monthly price, they are required by law to let you view and download text, photos, videos, word documents, PDFs, music files, and all other types of files. By law, they must let you make phone calls on services like Skype or Google hangouts. They have to let you stream television shows. They have to let you download video games. They must view every piece of content as identical when delivering it to you, no matter what type of content it is or what the source is or who you are. In addition, they cannot charge the owners of the content extra money to let you access them, regardless of how large or small these websites are and how much traffic they get. This means Facebook doesn’t have to pay Comcast for you to be able to access it. It also means website owners don’t have to pay Comcast, Time Warner, and AT&T separately for access to their users.

5 situations that will likely arise if net neutrality is overturned

1.) ISPs will be allowed to charge you to access certain websites

This is the most often stated consequence of net neutrality being overturned. The above image shows the current plans available from an internet provider in Portugal, which rejected net neutrality a few years back. If net neutrality is overturned, it’s not a question of it this happens, but when. Some people say this is a good thing because it provides you with cheaper options if all you ever use is Facebook. That argument actually has some merit, though there are obvious counter arguments. ISPs would not be pushing for this if they stood to make less money from it, limiting yourself to certain information sources means you’re stuck with bias from those sources, and lacking access to the full internet means you can’t explore new services…restricting consumer options and also suppressing new businesses.

However, the story runs much deeper than that. I don’t think building packages like this is all that likely in the immediate future. The first changes are likely to be because…

2.) ISPs will be able to charge website owners to get access to their users

If net neutrality is overturned, ISPs can charge whatever fees they’d like to website owners. Here are a few potential situations that could arise:

  1. You set up a website for your wedding on TheKnot.com. You buy a $10 domain name “JohnAndJessicaSmith.com” to point to it. As of now, everyone can get to your website! If net neutrality is overturned, you could be required to pay $10 to each ISP that you want your website available to. Your parents are on AT&T? Sorry, but they can’t visit your site unless you pay the AT&T fee.
  2. You invent a new product and start a small online business selling it. You set up a website and start making sales. Your product goes viral and now you’re getting thousands of hits. You get a call from a Verizon sales rep. “We’ve noticed you’re getting a lot of traffic from our customers…congratulations! However, you’ve actually passed your free visits quota. If you’d like to keep getting traffic from our x million internet subscribers, we’ll need you to open an account with us at a rate of $x per 1,000 visits”
  3. Comcast owns NBC/Universal, the company that produces Saturday Night Live. It’s pretty well documented that the company has a strong liberal leaning. In the next election cycle, Comcast could require conservative/Republican candidates to pay them millions of dollars to allow Comcast users to visit their campaign websites. This sounds a lot like…

3.) Censorship! ISPs will be able to block access to whatever websites they want, meaning idea/thought censorship with no oversight

A few months ago, a group that supports net neutrality set up the website comcastroturf.com to oppose Comcast allegedly submitting fake anti-neutrality comments to the FCC under its own customers’ names and addresses. Comcast sent a cease-and-desist letter to the owners of the site. If net neutrality was not the current law of the land, Comcast could simply block its users from accessing that site with no legal repercussions. In addition…

4.) ISPs will be able to prevent users from accessing services that compete with theirs, strengthening their monopolies

Pretty much every major ISP offers phone and television service in addition to internet. Comcast owns Hulu, which competes with Netflix. If net neutrality is gone, Comcast can just block access to Netflix…or charge huge amounts of money to Netflix to access its customers. Why compete when you can completely destroy a competitor? Do you use Skype instead of a phone line? Or maybe a VOIP service like Vonage? AT&T could block VOIP protocols and you’d have to use their higher priced service or pay a fee. It can even be more devious than this. Instead of outright blocking competitor’s sites, which would likely provoke consumer outrage, ISPs can simply slow down traffic from them so they appear to be non-functional. If Netflix has to pause to buffer every 5 minutes, you might start looking into Hulu.

5.) ISPs will be able to take steps to prevent users from accessing VPNs, thereby removing one of the few remaining privacy methods

Earlier this year, the FCC decided to allow ISPs to sell your internet browsing history. The only real way to get around that is to use a VPN service to encrypt your data to protect yourself. ISPs will be able to slow encrypted traffic to a trickle and block individual VPN connection points, meaning your VPN will likely fail and your browsing history will be available for all the world to buy. I hope it’s clean! In addition, if you use a VPN for work, they could easily slow your traffic unless your employer pays a bribe…I mean…fee. This is referred to as “throttling” content, if you want a term for it.

Will they really do this?

While ISPs argue they wouldn’t do any of the above and would be on their best behavior, multiple past court cases and FCC fights show they’ve already pushed the limits of what they can get away with even with neutrality in place:

2005 – Madison River Communications was blocking VOIP services. The FCC put a stop to it.

2005 – Comcast was denying access to p2p services without notifying customers.

2007-2009 – AT&T was having Skype and other VOIPs blocked because they didn’t like there was competition for their cellphones.

2011 – MetroPCS tried to block all streaming except youtube. They actually sued the FCC over this.

2011-2013 – AT&T, Sprint, and Verizon were blocking access to Google Wallet because it competed with their pay services.

2012 – Verizon was demanding google block tethering apps on android because it let owners avoid their $20 tethering fee. This was despite guaranteeing they wouldn’t do that as part of a winning bid on an airwaves auction. They were fined $1.25million over this.

2012 – AT&T tried to block access to FaceTime unless customers paid more money.

2013 – Verizon literally stated that the only thing stopping them from favoring some content providers over other providers were the net neutrality rules in place.

2016 – Netflix already has to pay ISPs to not slow with their traffic to you.

2017 – Time Warner Cable slowed down connections to League of Legends servers, while they were negotiating contracts with Riot in an effort to force Riot into paying TWC money. Spectrum ( bought TWC ) is now being sued by the state of New York over this.

How did classifying ISPs as common carriers in 2014 protect net neutrality?

In 2014, the FCC ruled that ISPs should be regulated as common carriers under Title II of the Communications Act of 1934. This classified ISPs as utilities providing a commodity and was a game-changer for net neutrality because all units of a commodity must be viewed as equal. That’s why your water company just bills you for total consumption and can’t charge you a different price for each gallon or charge you more per gallon than your neighbor or charge you more for water provided by one processing plant instead of a different one. If internet content is a commodity, ISPs can’t charge you more on a per-unit basis depending on what kind of traffic it is (webpage vs video vs image) or where it came from (google vs facebook vs uga.edu) or who you are (you vs your neighbor).

Using a law from the 30s to regulate the internet may seem questionable, but it is beneficial for a number of reasons. ISPs challenge regulations in court all the time, and having nearly 90 years worth of legal precedent behind a regulation provides a strong basis for it to survive legal challenges. The way the law was written, certain parts of it can be applied to industries without having to apply all of it. ISPs were exempted from the more complicated and heavily regulating sections of the law, meaning this really is almost entirely about net neutrality. There are a few other consumer protection provisions that will be gone if the common carrier classification is overruled that are worth reading about.

If they do vote to remove the Title II utility classification, the FCC may put in place different net neutrality protections. However, I’ve seen nothing indicating this, and even if they do, those will inevitably be challenged in court and could fail without decades of case law to back them up.

Where does this leave us?

Some argue that competition would prevent ISPs from engaging in any of the above. However, at least 10 percent of Americans have access to only one ISP and therefore will not benefit from competition. This is both from rural areas that only have a single provider as well as many urban and suburban apartment complexes that only offer a single option. Even with two options, collusion is very likely between the companies. There’s a reason we have the term duopoly.

The cable industry (and their $50 million in lobbying money) have continually argued that net neutrality creates overbearing regulations and harms consumers. The previous administration rejected these arguments and had the FCC put in place strong language to support it. However, the currently FCC is rapidly moving toward ending net neutrality with a vote on December 14th. While declassifying the internet as a utility and ending net neutrality would not be the end of the world, it is extremely anti-competitive as it supports cable monopolies and duopolies and allows them to block, throttle, or put anything they want behind a paywall. ISPs argue that they would use additional revenue to improve infrastructure and service, but they have already shown they don’t care about that by the millions of dollars in dividends they distribute annually in place of infrastructure investment, the estimated $400 billion in tax breaks that states and local communities gave them to install fiber over the past 20 years that never happened, and their consistent bottom rankings on the customer service charts.

Having said all that, the sad part is that very little can be done about it. Millions of pro-neutrality comments have been sent to the FCC, yet nothing has changed in their plans. For better (for the ISPs) or for worse (for every other person and business), it seems the $50 million bought what it was meant to…the destruction of the free internet. That said, there is still hope. You can do your part by posting a comment in support of title II designation (proceeding 17-108) or contacting your local and national representatives.