FCC vote leaves nation asking 'now what?'

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Experts say agency's decision has reduced consumers' rights

As expected, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted 3–2 Thursday to repeal net neutrality rules for internet use put in place by the Obama administration.

The move is widely viewed as a major victory for large internet service providers (ISP) like Verizon and Comcast, and a setback for internet content providers. But what it means for consumers leaves to be seen.

Aram Sinnreich, associate professor of communication at American University, expects to see higher costs for content, more advertising, less innovation, and less competition from poorly-funded startups.

"However, there are more far-reaching and consequential effects that we might not notice right away," Sinnreich told ConsumerAffairs. "ISPs now have an incentive to block or throttle traffic using encryption, such as VPNs and Tor, which could have negative effects ranging from silencing political dissidents to isolating culturally marginalized users and groups, from LGBT to the disabled."

In short, he says ISPs will have a lot more censorship power than in the past. Barbara Cherry, a communications law expert and Indiana University professor, says the internet was considered a common carrier–with built-in consumer protections–long before the FCC formalized that status two years ago.

Now that providers are no longer considered common carriers, Cherry says ISPs can pretty much do what they want.

No options

"The effect to consumers of this order is you cannot go to the FCC for help, you don't have any state jurisdiction to help you, and you can't go to court because you signed a contract with an arbitration clause," Cherry said in an interview.

The basic principle of net neutrality is that ISPs must treat all legal internet content the same. They can't favor one content provider with faster speeds just because it pays the ISP a premium price.

For example, AT&T is trying to purchase Time Warner, a content provider. Under net neutrality regulations, it would be illegal to favor its own content with faster speeds while slowing down the connection speed when an AT&T customer accessed a rival streaming service. 

Without net neutrality, it can do just that and more.

Prior to the FCC vote, ISPs were also barred from slowing down internet connections for consumers who visit particular websites or apps. In short, ISPs were blocked from prioritizing the content that moves across their networks -- although ISPs have been quick to point out that they own those networks.

Critics among tech companies and consumer groups have warned this move threatens competition. Start-up web companies might be at a disadvantage against their larger, legacy competitors if they can't pay the ISPs for faster, easier access.

Legal challenge

Free Press, a consumer group, has announced it plans to file a lawsuit against the FCC to reverse its action. It also joined other groups in petitioning Congress to use the Congressional Review Act to reverse the FCC's action.

“Net neutrality is the nondiscrimination law of the internet," Free Press Policy Director Matt Wood said in a statement. "It’ll be just as necessary tomorrow as it is today."

Cherry says she thinks a court challenge is the best hope for net neutrality supporters to reinstate the policy, and says there may be firm legal grounds for that.

After Thursday's vote, tech giants ranging from Facebook to Google issued statements expressing their disappointment. Business opposition was not limited to Silicon Valley, however, as top real estate officials warned the FCC action would hurt their industry, now heavily dependent on the internet.

Realtors concerned

"FCC's rollback of the Open Internet Order will mean higher costs and slower service for millions of American consumers and businesses," said National Association of Realtors President Elizabeth Mendenhall. "Realtors have strong concerns about what that might mean for the way consumers search for homes online and real estate is transacted."

Cherry says prior to 2002, access to the internet was considered common carriage service because it was accessed over telephone lines. The problem, she says, began when cable companies that provide internet services began to argue they weren't common carriers.

When the FCC ruled in 2015 that broadband providers are, in fact, common carriers, many thought the issue was settled. The FCC made clear Thursday it isn't.

"We are entering a new era in which, for the first time, there is no presumption of a regulatory mandate for net neutrality," Sinnreich said.

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