Today, a huge swath of the internet is taking a break from our regularly scheduled cat photos, *.gif memes, and political news to talk about something that affects the entire internet: net neutrality.
If you’re online today (and clearly, you are), you’re probably seeing messages like this:
Or, here at Consumerist and our sibling sites, this:
There are more than 80,000 sites, services, and individuals participating in today’s Day of Action to preserve net neutrality. From 4chan to Kickstarter, Etsy to Google, a huge swath of the web is asking users to participate.
What is net neutrality?
Here at Consumerist, we’ve covered net neutrality extensively for years.
At its most basic, net neutrality is the principle that your internet service provider should deliver you the (lawful) traffic you ask for, as you ask for it, without slowing down, blocking, or charging extra for things it doesn’t like (or competes with).
At its more complex, net neutrality is the Open Internet Order of 2015, which the FCC voted to adopt in, you guessed it, Feb. 2015.
That Order puts in place three bright-line principles that all ISPs, both home (fixed) and mobile, have to adhere to:
- Broadband providers may not block access to legal content, applications, services, or non-harmful devices.
- They may not impair or degrade lawful internet traffic on the basis of content, application, services, or any classes thereof.
- They may not favor some internet traffic over other internet traffic in exchange for consideration of any kind — no paid prioritization or fast lanes.
Absent these rules, you could, for example, see situations where a company like Comcast, wishing to promote its own streaming TV service, slows down competing services like Netflix or Amazon Prime enough that it frustrates you to use them. Or Comcast could simply speed up its own services so that everyone else looks like crap in comparison. Or it could charge Netflix or Amazon more for “fast lane” access to reach you — or charge you more for the same.
So we have net neutrality rules to prevent things like that from happening. (Again.)
Why is it in trouble?
The FCC that passed the Open Internet Rule was led by chairman Tom Wheeler, during the Obama administration. When the Trump administration took office in Jan. 2017, the FCC changed too.
At the end of January, long-time net neutrality foe Ajit Pai was promoted to the big seat and became the Commission’s chairman.
Because gaining a majority at the FCC is, on many key issues, basically a matter of partisan math, Pai will absolutely succeed if he wants to, regardless of literally tens of millions of people arguing against it.
That’s the bad news. Here’s the good.
Your comments matter.
It’s true, Pai and the FCC don’t seem to care much right now that the comments in the proceeding are filling up with robot spam. Nor does the Commission seem to care that some people’s identities are being stolen to file fake comments in their names.
But this proceeding, like the one before it, is all but destined to end up in court. And when it does, your comments will matter once more.
As former FCC general counsel Jonathan Sallet has said, what individuals think their ISPs are for, and the expectation they have of those services, matters.
“What do consumers believe they’re buying when they buy an internet connection?,” he asked at an event in June. “Do they think they’re buying a pathway, or do they think they’re buying the content itself?”
“You buy a service that says it will take you everywhere on the internet,” he added. “Do you think that expectation is that you can go to all legal websites and apps, or do you think there are some that the broadband provider will say are off limits?”
Those are the points that will come up in a court case, and so those are the really important points to make in your comments to the FCC, Sallet stressed in response to audience questions.
In short: the outcome of this particular battle may be a predictable loss, but the fight is far from over.
If you would like to tell the FCC just what you expect from your ISP, and what you want the Commission to do, here’s our step-by-step guide how to file a comment with the FCC.
Our colleagues at Consumer Reports also have a tool you can use. That form will submit a form letter in your name as well as an additional, personalized comment to the FCC, if you prefer.