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Is Net Neutrality Really a Threat to the Internet?

On December 14, 2017, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted to repeal the Obama-era net neutrality rules put into place two years earlier. The rollback gives internet service providers (ISPs) the ability to act as gatekeepers for web content; essentially, they can promote their own services while slowing down access to competing platforms. This goes against the central principle of net neutrality where all traffic is treated equally. 

Ajit Pai, current head of the FCC and a former Verizon attorney, said the 2015 net neutrality rules, which reclassified ISPs as public utilities, were too “heavy-handed.” He claimed that a “lighter touch” approach is better for investment and continued innovation. Pai also claimed that ISPs had been held back from updating their infrastructure because of the reclassification, although this point was proven wrong by both tech companies and activists. 

Before the vote, activists, most notably Fight for the Future, went into action, setting up protests, shaming lawmakers on billboards and encouraging consumers to comment on the FCC website. They warned that a repeal of the 2015 rules would allow ISPs to create fast lanes for preferred content, charge customers more to access common sites and slow down the rest of the web for those who cannot pay. In the end, ISPs would create tiered service, similar to television packages. A repeal would also ensure continued service monopolies in many cities and virtually no price controls. 

A common argument against the new 2015 rules is that the internet operated well enough under the old 1996 Title I classification, so there was no need to change anything. The reality is, the web has changed and grown substantially in 21 years, and a rule change was needed to protect its freedoms. 

Under the 2015 Title II reclassification, all ISPs had to treat web traffic equally and were subject to government oversight. Contrary to Pai’s claims, several ISPs had updated their infrastructure and invested in faster gigabit service for their communities since the new rules were passed. Over the long term, the rules would likely have brought consumer costs under control and made internet service more affordable and accessible to everyone. 

Net neutrality is not a threat. It is the foundation on which the web was built and should be defended to keep the internet free and open for generations to come.