Media were in overdrive Monday, drawing attention to the end of 'net neutrality.' Although many did point out that the rules that went into effect on April 23 are partial and will be contested, it's still a milestone in the history of the internet.
As the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) pointed out, net neutrality – the Obama-era rules regulating access to the internet – did not die on April 23, 2018.
The US Federal Register – where all US federal government rules or proposed rules are published – has an "effective date" of April 23 on its website for the so-called "Restoring Internet Freedom Order."
But as the EFF noted, the part of the order that went into effect applied to only some limited changes to the regulatory regime: "The majority of the rules governing the Internet remain the same – prohibitions on blocking, throttling, and paid prioritization – remain."
The Republican-controlled Federal Communications Commission (FCC) passed the order in December under the stewardship of Ajit Pai, appointed to the FCC under President Barack Obama, but then elevated to chair by his successor with a remit to overhaul internet regulation.
The White House must approve the bulk of the order. So internet service providers (ISPs) – the big winners under the new rules – can’t start to make changes yet.
For that to happen, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) must also vote and approve key parts of the order. However, as multiple media pointed out, the barriers to implementation are procedural and as Gizmodo noted, "there’s been absolutely zero indication" the administration of US President Donald Trump will step in to halt a process it has championed.
Assuming OMB approval, as CNET notes there will be a further waiting and public comment period before the order goes into full effect, but not before late May or early June at the earliest.
What is net neutrality?
Net neutrality, as the Obama-era rules defined it, is the principle that all traffic on the internet is equal (CNET). It doesn't matter whether you're checking Facebook, using Instagram, watching a movie on a site like Amazon or Netflix or using it as a student at a school, or a public servant in your office.
The rub for opponents of net neutrality, as CNET points out, is that ISPs like AT&T and Comcast can't slow down or speed up content, or regulate access to content, on a provider-preferred or user pays basis. And the lines between access prosision and content are blurring. AT&T is trying to buy Time Warner, and Comcast already owns NBC Universal. Under the old rules these behemoths couldn't favour their own content over that of a competitor. Under the new rules, how likely is it that they won't?
Led by Pai, the FCC voted on December 14, 2017 to repeal the 2015 regulations, which attempted to ensure equal access to the internet for all.
Importantly, the new rules will shift regulation of broadband from the FCC to the Federal Trade Commission. Under the Obama-era rules, the internet was treated like a telephone network. Under the new rules, the issue won't be about ensuring a service, it will be all about allowing the magic of the market to sort things out.
The New York Times noted how the increasing monopolisation of internet infrastructure and content provision by very large companies could affect consumers dependent on these companies to get online or for what they can find online, or both.
Can opponents of the new rules fight back
Critics say the new rules are all but a certainty under the current administration. But there are political and legal barriers remaining to their implementation. Congress could intervene, especially if Congress changes its complexion in the November mid-term elections in the US. Some big tech companies and attorney generals in more than twenty states are filing lawsuits to protect consumers. Several states are pushing ISPs to honour earlier promises not to block or throttle content.
Forgotten in some ways is that the Facebook, Instagram, Netflix, Amazon-friendly internet is already a far cry from its origins in the concept of sharing information that would make for better communities. The fight for the internet was already lost in many ways long before net neutrality entered the lexicon of its terms of engagement.