Net neutrality was codified under the FCC's Title II regulatory authority nearly three years ago, regulations that covered both wired and wireless internet providers. The providers were none too happy about this - Verizon's morse code sass being the most memorable response.
Today, the FCC voted to end its authority over ISPs under Title II, putting an end to those net neutrality protections. Ajit Pai, chairman of the FCC, is largely credited with making this happen. This is all, to put it succinctly, very bad.
Today, you'll probably hear a lot about how your favorite websites will slow down, be blocked, or only be available as part of special paid packages. Or about how ISPs may use their newfound freedom to stymie the voices of their critics in order to prevent dissent over these policies from spreading. Some of these fears are well-founded - the idea of content "upgrade" packages to ensure access to your favorite websites is already a reality in some countries.
And, in principle, the idea of allowing for-profit entities to decide what is and isn't an appropriately "fair" level of access to the internet for consumers is just bad on its face. Of course it is: consumers and ISPs are plainly at odds in their interests. These companies sprung out of the cable and telecom businesses, industries notorious for abusing regional monopolies for decades (the Bell Breakup being the zenith of the latter's power). Not to mention we already have a pretty raw deal when it comes to broadband in the US - the entire country has been sliced and diced by the biggest players, and they've intentionally made it extraordinarily difficult for meaningful competition to take place. Even Google has basically been forced to concede it's just too tough a game to break into. Companies like Comcast, Spectrum (formerly Time Warner), AT&T, and Verizon have the financial and territorial clout to beat almost any newcomer into submission with their aggressive temporary rate promotions and vast coverage.
The argument of the carriers and ISPs is, of course, "trust us."
Trust us to cap your data. Trust us to limit access to services we don't like - because you must be doing something bad with them.
Probably sooner than any sort of dystopian internet hellscape, though, we'll find ourselves presented with olive branches. Are you a Comcast customer? Great. Now we can guarantee any content you stream from our content partners will always be at the highest possible speed! Or maybe Spectrum will partner with Amazon to guarantee your 4K Instant Video will always look nice and won't buffer, because Amazon is now paying them to ensure that's the case. These are experience wins for consumers.
But the obvious dark side is that by giving the big guys the ability to make their experiences better, it will come at the expense of smaller or more cost-conscious players who can't afford to pay internet service providers for those kinds of services. They'll be stuck in the "regular" lane, where 4K video may not really work all that well during peak usage, or latency may not be quite good enough for some gaming experiences. When you create a fast lane, you inherently create a slow lane.
We can't be sure what will happen now that net neutrality's protections are gone here in the US. Whatever happens will probably happen fairly slowly - ISPs aren't eager to stoke consumer outrage that could become legislation which cements net neutrality into law. That's the very last kind of response they want to evoke. So, for now, we'll probably see very little change. That doesn't mean we still shouldn't be mad - we should. And we should do our best to ensure net neutrality does become law so we can avoid this kind of regulatory flip-flopping in the future. It shouldn't be in the hands of the FCC to decide if net neutrality is good or bad for America, it should be in the hands of voters encouraging their elected officials to make laws.
In the meantime, we should all be on the lookout for shady behavior. Even little things are worth raising a stink about, because if we can show these companies they won't get away with bad practices without a bunch of people raising hell over it, they'll probably tread more lightly in the future. The internet isn't coming to an end today, but we should all be vigilant.