The most important step for the future of the internet, for citizens, politicians, and corporations alike, is to calm down, research, and debate its future. But the internet’s nature might make that impossible.
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As had been expected, the FCC voted yesterday to roll back the Obama-era Open Internet Order, which treated broadband internet service providers—Comcast, Verizon, Time Warner, and their ilk—as common carriers under Title II of the Communications Act. Those protections required ISPs to treat internet traffic equally, preventing them from blocking or otherwise interfering with access to specific websites, apps, or other resources. Under the new rules, dubbed “Restoring Internet Freedom” by the FCC, ISPs would have to disclose any steps they take to limit or sell special access.
The FCC voted in favor of repeal despite widespread support of net neutrality among the American public—and despite the fact that public comment for the new policy appears to have been compromised by millions of fraudulent entries.
Those factors will likely come up in legal challenges to the repeal, which are already mounting. The new rules won’t take effect for at least several months. State attorneys general have begun filing lawsuits. And Congress could adopt legislation that would codify net neutrality into law, a move that activists are encouraging citizens to appeal for. The Democratic senator Ed Markey announced plans for legislation to reverse the FCC’s repeal, and given the bipartisan support for net neutrality among the electorate, it’s possible that such a bill could find support across the aisle.
Possible, but hardly guaranteed. A letter to the FCC from the House Committee on Energy and Commerce supporting the FCC’s action was signed by 107 Republican members of Congress. Of those, Motherboard reported that 84 have taken telco-industry contributions.
Even though the FCC’s action—a 3–2 vote along party lines—has been anticipated since the proposal’s announcement just before Thanksgiving, public response to yesterday’s rollback was severe. On Twitter, a woman posted a video of her 11-year-old sister’s school lunch table shouting “Ajit Pai is a loser.” A Missouri man created a $500,000 crowd-funding campaign (since taken down) to “deport Ajit Pai”—a dense morsel of consumer rights mixed with xenophobia (Pai is Indian American) that typifies the ethos of the internet.
The media’s response has been similarly drastic. Jimmy Kimmel weighed in, calling Pai a “jackhole” who wants to line the pockets of big telco at the cost of the public. Briefly, CNN ran the headline, “End of the Internet as We Know It.”
One such fear, widely held by net-neutrality proponents, is that ISPs might slice up internet service into tiers, as they have done for cable television. Stoking this fear, @therealbanksy, the Twitter account that ostensibly represents the anonymous British artist Banksy, posted a warning: “If you don't want to pay extra for your favorite sites you need to be supporting #NetNeutrality.” Along with it, some hypothetical fees: Twitter: $14.99/month; Netflix: $9.99/movie; Google: $1.99/search. As I write this, it has been retweeted 162,000 times. @therealbanksy, whose profile reads “fan account,” aptly represents the internet itself: billions of people, who might also be dogs, criminals, children, or senators, all jockeying for a shred of one another’s attention at all costs.