The internet was once described as "the last frontier," a place free of censorship, government meddling, and crass commercialization.
Those days are long gone. Advertisers are given direct access to would-be customers, government and law enforcement agencies invade files of anyone who might be deemed suspicious, thieves steal our financial data and sometimes the actual identities of unsuspecting web browsers.
Old-school web surfers who were dismayed about the state of the internet received a rare tidbit of good news in 2015. The Obama administration urged the Federal Communications Commission to approve a new provision called net neutrality: a basic tenet that prohibited internet service providers from speeding up, slowing down, or arbitrarily blocking any content, applications, or websites users tuned into.
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With the new regime in Washington comes an assault on our ability to surf the net freely and on our own terms: paid priorization, wherein customers will pay a premium to have certain internet services delivered to them faster. Paid priorization would undoubtedly prove to be a boon to companies designed for surfers who like to stream movies and games at maximum speeds and have the ability to pay more for the privilege. Those extra dollars go directly into the pockets of the giant telecom providers like Verizon, Comcast, and AT&T, which will also be able to speed up and slow down how fast texts and tweets are delivered.
So, of course, it's no secret who the major lobbyists were that got to the Trump administration.
The Republican-led Federal Communications Commission voted December 14 to repeal Obama-era net neutrality protections. The repeal passed along a party-line vote, 3-2. Ajit Pai, the FCC chairman appointed by President Trump, has framed the repeal as getting the government to "stop micromanaging the internet."
How the repeal will affect internet users in the short term is unclear -- it is possible that many will embrace the repeal. It could actually save consumers money. "It could change how customers are billed for services, both for good and bad. T-Mobile, for example, was criticized by net neutrality supporters for effectively making it cheaper for customers to stream videos from Netflix and HBO, putting other video services at a disadvantage," CNN reported.
The FCC will face legal challenges. New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman already announced he would challenge the decision in court. "The FCC just gave big telecom an early Christmas present, by giving internet service providers yet another way to put corporate profits over consumers," Schneiderman said on December 14. He added that a number of other states would likely join the suit.
"Today's rollback will give ISPs [internet service providers] new ways to control what we see, what we do, and what we say online. That's a threat to the free exchange of ideas that's made the internet a valuable asset in our democratic process," the AG said.
Internet services providers could charge more to access Facebook, Twitter, and other sites, Schneiderman warned. The FCC didn't immediately respond to a request for comment on Schneiderman's lawsuit.
Netflix officials also expressed dismay. "We're disappointed in the decision to gut net neutrality protections that ushered in an unprecedented era of innovation, creativity, and civic engagement. This is the beginning of a longer legal battle. Netflix stands with innovators, large and small, to oppose this misguided FCC order," reads a statement released on December 15.
Without net neutrality, internet providers may pursue similar offers more aggressively, which would likely be viewed as a positive by consumers looking to save money on their streaming media.
But the hole cards have yet to be played. Down the road, critics suspect internet providers will begin charging customers more to access services like Netflix that are currently included as part of basic internet service.
Steve Weisman, a media law lecturer at Bentley University, is pessimistic about the long-term costs associated with paid priorization.
"The bad news is that many people already have little or no choice in regard to internet service providers -- and therein lies the problem. With little, if any, competition, the ISPs pretty much can do what they want and offer the packages they want," he told Metro US in a recent interview. "We well could see ISPs making individual deals with specific providers leaving consumers in a position of having to choose providers who may or may not provide the services they want at the speeds necessary to make them usable and competitive."
These bundled packages often come at a discount. However, Weisman warned, the long-range trend will cost most of us more money. "While you may see some initial promotional rates, those rates will go away and, ultimately, you will find that with little (if any) competition between ISPs, there is no incentive for them not to raise rates," he told Metro.
In addition, you will see some of the content providers passing on their new costs of doing business to the consumer by raising their fees across the board, even to those who don't avail themselves of the premium services being offered.
One weapon to stop the giant telecoms from controlling the action is local control. "With the FCC opening the door for internet service providers to block content, networks owned and operated by local governments may be the last bastion of the free and open internet," opined Victor Luckerson, writing in The Ringer on December 14.
In fact, municipal broadband is on the rise. ISPs run by local governments rather than private corporations put the management of internet content into local hands. The hope is to expand access and reduce prices.
The FCC approved net neutrality guidelines just two years ago. It was supported by most technology companies and web surfers who wanted the internet to remain open to all users on an equal basis.
"Internet companies big and small banded together for an online protest to preserve net neutrality," but to no avail thus far, CNN Tech reported.