Net neutrality in the United States is officially out. The FCC’s repeal of a 2015 law enshrining Internet neutrality took effect on Monday.
The Internet was always meant to be a free and open place. You could say anything you want, read and watch anything you want, and (provided you were following the law) do or create anything you want. Thanks to net neutrality, innovation flourished. From Amazon to Wikipedia, the best products, services, and ideas rose to the top.
But the principle of net neutrality is in grave danger. On Monday, laws preserving net neutrality were repealed under the dubiously named Restoring Internet Freedom Order. The name is a fiction. In fact, the new Federal Communications Commission (FCC) rules turn the Internet over to powerful Internet service providers (ISPs), who now have the ability to censor, slow down (i.e. throttle), and charge extra for access to certain content.
Without laws ensuring net neutrality, ISPs can revoke your Internet freedom at any time. This article explains the principle of net neutrality, the new US policy, and what it all means for Internet users.
What is net neutrality?
Net neutrality is the principle that ISPs—such as Verizon, AT&T, or Comcast, which provision the physical infrastructure of the Internet and sell access to users—should treat all Internet traffic equally. ISPs have the power to monitor and control the Internet. But under the principles of net neutrality, an ISP should be a neutral vessel for the information passing through it. This preserves a level playing field for companies and Internet users. Of course, ISPs may not choose to honor this principle, which is why net neutrality laws are so important.
Why is net neutrality such a big deal?
When net neutrality came under discussion in 2014 and 2015, online companies and users mobilized massively to support it. On Sept. 10, 2014, major companies participated in a day of protest, blacking out or slowing down their websites to simulate an Internet without neutrality. Millions of people contacted their elected representatives. The mobilization worked, and net neutrality rules came into effect in February 2015.
Net neutrality is vital to the character of the Internet, fair market competition, and the preservation of democracy. Without net neutrality, ISPs could put parts of the Internet behind a paywall, giving special access to information for those with the ability to pay. Major online companies could pay to be in the “fast lane,” providing customers with faster service than startups and smaller companies stuck in the “slow lane.” Studies have shown that such discrimination hurts market competition. End users could also end up paying higher costs to access high-demand services. Meanwhile, the next Google or Facebook may never get off the ground, hindered by net bias.
For instance, an ISP could strike a deal with Netflix to provide faster speeds to users, creating unequal competition with video streaming services in the “slow lane.” An ISP could also charge companies for the amount of traffic they use on the network or charge consumers extra for access to “premium” websites.
How will ISPs be regulated now?
The 2015 rules classified the Internet as a “public good,” bringing ISPs under the regulatory framework of the FCC, which also oversees the public airwaves. With the repeal of these rules, ISPs are back under the jurisdiction of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which regulates market competition. The FTC, however, cannot make rules; it can only take action after a violation of consumer protection or antitrust laws. Moreover, many of the ISPs’ blocking, throttling and paywalling activities may not even be against the law, leaving the FTC powerless to intervene.
How will repealing net neutrality affect us?
If ISPs decide to manipulate the Internet for their own profit, there’s very little users can do about it. Using VPNs and accessing the Tor Network may be a strategy to get around throttling of some services, but if the ISP decides to throttle a specific website or decides to throttle all traffic except a few premium sites (which it is likely to do), there’s nothing that can be done. This is one reason that net neutrality as policy is so important.
How we can restore net neutrality
While the federal rules on net neutrality are gone for the time being, there are efforts underway to preserve net neutrality by other means. Several states have net neutrality bills or laws, and a number of lawsuits against the FCC are pending. You can still register your voice in favor of net neutrality with your state or congressional representatives and support organizations, like the Electronic Frontier Foundation, that are fighting for online freedom.
At Proton VPN, we are passionate about net neutrality, and we’re working to educate more people about this important issue for Internet freedom. The future of innovation and democracy depend on an Internet that provides more access and opportunity, not less.
The Proton VPN Team
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