Net Neutrality: Will Congress Save Internet Freedom?
Net neutrality is not dead -- yet.
The obvious question is: What if it doesn't pass? The not-so-obvious answer is: the bill can help win the net neutrality battle even if it doesn’t pass.
Before we examine the impact of this bill, let's go over a few background facts.
What is net neutrality?
The net neutrality rules of 2015 prohibited Internet Service Providers (ISP) from blocking, throttling or slowing down lawful content on any websites or apps, or creating "fast" lanes for preferred content and "slow" lanes for everyone else. However, the net neutrality repeal of December 2017 allowed ISPs such as AT&T, Verizon, Comcast and others to do two things:
Slow down or block websites and apps of organizations unless they pay ISPs higher tariffs
Ask consumers to pay more to access certain websites or groups of sites.
Startups and small businesses are the most vulnerable in a world without net neutrality. They simply don't have the means to pay huge fees to ISPs to ensure that their websites or apps are not slowed down.
Net neutrality violations after the 2017 repeal.
After the 2017 repeal, there have been several incidents of speed throttling and site blocking. Here are a few notable violations during 2018.
The California fire incident: In August 2018, during the largest known fire in California history, Verizon throttled the internet speed of the fire department in Santa Clara County to 0.5 percent of its original speed. Fire officials stated that this severely impacted their rescue operations.
AT&T’s WatchTV: The absence of net neutrality rules allows ISPs to use Zero-rating to give their own services a significant edge over other competing services. Zero-rating means that any data used towards consuming AT&T’s services, such as WatchTV will not count towards consumers’ monthly data caps.
Ryan Singel, a media and strategy fellow at Stanford Law School’s Center for Internet and Society and founder at Contextly, told me in an email interview that, “AT&T continues its policy of zero-rating its own video services, while not zero-rating competing services. With its acquisition of Time-Warner, it has even more reason to continue this unfair practice.”
Sprint throttling Skype: A study conducted by Northeastern University and the University of Massachusetts found that Sprint has been selectively throttling Skype -- the popular video chat tool from Microsoft. The researchers stated that the reason is because Skype competes with Sprint’s own calling service.
How will ‘Save the Internet Act’ help?
The Save The Internet Act aims to do three things:
Reverse the FCC’s December 2017 repeal.
Prohibit the FCC from enacting a similar repeal again.
Restore the 2015 order.
Singel said, “What this highlights is that the 2015 Order was comprehensive and careful, blocking known loopholes and giving the FCC clear authority to protect public safety and investigate new potential violations, such as zero-rating or egregious data caps, and to act accordingly.”
Can the new bill become law?
The bill has to pass both houses of Congress and then get President Trump’s signature before it becomes a law and restores net neutrality.
The bill is expected to pass the Democrat-controlled House. However, a House hearing on March 12th indicated that Republicans are not keen to support this bill. Therefore, there is a slim chance that it will pass the Republican-held Senate. Even if it does, President Trump still has the power to veto it.
What happens if the bill doesn’t pass?
The bill has value even if it does not pass the Senate or get President Trump’s nod. The Save The Internet Act can influence future events in several ways:
Impact current lawsuits: There are several lawsuits challenging the FCC’s 2017 net neutrality repeal. The most prominent one is before the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. This is led by Mozilla (the company behind the Firefox browser) and supported by 22 state attorneys general.
Another notable lawsuit is the Justice Department’s fight against California’s new law that protects net neutrality. Even if the bill passes only the House, the vote could be interpreted by the courts as the will of the people and would influence judgments.
Encourage state-level actions: California passed its net neutrality protection bill in 2018 and governors of New York, New Jersey and Montana have announced measures to not sign contracts with ISPs that violate net neutrality. Any bill passed in the House would encourage more states to come up with their own measures to prevent ISPs from enacting further violations.
Galvanize public support: Finally, the bill will keep the issue of net neutrality alive in people’s minds. Henry C. Su, a partner at the law firm Constantine Cannon LLP and a former trial attorney for the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC), told me in an email interview, “From the standpoint of ISPs, I’m not sure if you characterize the bills themselves as a deterrent, especially if they have a slim chance of passing. The deterrent, if it exists, comes from the galvanizing of voters and the press around an issue that is clearly not going away.”
Singel also pointed out, “At the least, this keeps the issue in the news, which increases the likelihood that ISPs refrain from repeating their behavior from 2013-15 around interconnection.”
Keeps a leash on ISPs: ISPs haven’t gone all out with violations because of a simple reason. The intense public scrutiny, lawsuits, state-level actions and political pressure have created a substantial amount of uncertainty. As you know, any business hates to execute too many changes in the face of uncertainty.
Su said, “ISPs, no differently than other companies, have developed business models that they believe to be successful and profitable. They aren’t going to turn on a dime and do something different just because they now can under the current regulatory environment.”
Keep the discussion alive
The Save the Internet Act may or may not become a law. However, it will certainly support dozens of ongoing battles on multiple fronts to restore net neutrality. You can also contribute to the fight to restore net neutrality by writing about it, talking about it in social media, business events or in your neighborhood.
The key is to keep the issue alive in people’s minds. As long as people demand their right to a free and fair internet, net neutrality will remain alive.