The U.S. Without Net Neutrality: How An Internet Nightmare Unfolds

Today, we take the freedom of the web for granted. Under Trump, maybe we shouldn't

Jan 25, 2017 at 9:01 AM ET

Picture this: It’s six months into the great Comcast-Verizon War of 2018. A buddy texts you how insane the third season of Stranger Things is, but he knows he’s just rubbing it in. You can’t legally watch it, since Netflix sided with Verizon in the conflict, and your neighborhood only gets Comcast. You try to visit the Wikipedia page to read the summary, and not even that works. Ever since Congress voted to defang the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), there’s nothing keeping internet providers in check.

For years, internet freedom activists have campaigned to keep anything resembling that situation from ever happening, by championing for the abstract concept of net neutrality, an idea that has always been hard to explain and usually even harder to get people fired up about. 

But under President Trump, the public may finally get a firsthand look at what net neutrality means in practice — because if the Trump administration is able to successfully abolish it, the internet is going to get a lot more expensive and harder to use.

Net neutrality is the reason internet providers like Comcast or Verizon are required to let their customers access the entire internet without restriction. To use a famous example, net neutrality doesn’t care if it takes a lot of bandwidth to stream movies — it can’t use that fact as an excuse to charge either Netflix or their customers more, or to slow down their internet speeds. Internet providers had for years lobbied against it, but in 2015, to much acclaim from internet advocates, the FCC enshrined firm net neutrality rules, and in June 2016, solidified them in court. 

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Trump’s team hadn’t been explicitly clear about its policies in this area, but it just recently picked fierce net neutrality opponent and former Verizon lawyer Ajit Pai to chair the FCC, the federal body that oversees Internet regulation.

In addition, both the new president and some of his closest allies have expressed both a strong opposition to net neutrality and a profound ignorance of what the concept actually means. This includes Congresswoman Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), a vice chair on Trump’s transition team’s Executive Committee, who received hundreds of thousands of dollars from the telecommunications industry before introducing a failed bill that would have reversed FCC rules and allowed internet service providers (ISPs) to self-regulate their customers’ traffic. The Republican Party platform, authored in 2016 while current Trump Chief of Staff Reince Priebus was chair of the party, strictly condemns net neutrality, describing it as “plans to turn over the Information Freedom Highway to regulators.”

In what’s believed to be the only time he addressed the subject personally, Trump himself tweeted in 2014 that “Net neutrality is the fairness doctrine,” a former FCC policy that required TV stations present dissenting views, a comparison that simply doesn’t begin to make sense. 

So what would the internet look like without net neutrality? Internet providers would likely start using it for a business advantage, said Gigi Sohn, a recently-retired FCC senior official who advised former FCC chairman Tom Wheeler on net neutrality rules.

“They’re in the business to make money,” Sohn told Vocativ. She pointed to CBS CEO Leslie Moonves, who said in February 2016 that Trump’s candidacy “may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.” 

“I mean, they have their own political predilections, but they pray at the altar of money,” Sohn said.

To start, internet providers not burdened by net neutrality could begin by offering deals and exclusives for their content. Comcast, consistently rated one of the most hated companies in America, is owned by NBCUniversal. NBC owns streaming rights the Olympics through 2032. Without the FCC’s rules, NBC could choose to only allow Comcast subscribers unfettered access to the games. People who used Spectrum to get online, for instance, would maybe have to pay for a special Olympic pass. Or if NBCUniversal wanted to get really nasty, it could bar anyone but Comcast subscribers from viewing their Olympic stream, period, daring customers of other providers to switch to Comcast.

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Streaming video sites could balkanize even further: Hulu might cut an exclusive deal with Comcast while Netflix inked one with Verizon, meaning no one could get access to both. And if you’re one of those unlucky Americans whose neighborhood is only served by a single provider? Hope you like whichever service it struck a deal with, because that’s all you’ll be able to legally get.

Internet providers could also squeeze websites, instead of consumers directly. Verizon could start a bidding war for streaming video services, for instance. Since YouTube is owned by Google and has a lot more money than Vimeo, YouTube could pay Verizon for faster or even exclusive service. YouTube would have an effective monopoly on streaming video for Verizon companies.

But even then, those costs would eventually be paid by the consumer, according to Matt Wood, the policy director at the nonprofit tech policy group Free Press.

“No matter who the ISPs hold up for more money, it’s all going to come back to their customers who’ll have to pay more to somebody in order to gain access to content,” Wood told Vocativ.

A total lack of net neutrality would enable internet providers to slow down or fully block access to any site it didn’t like. Most of the internet’s most popular sites are free to access for anyone who’s got an internet package and don’t mind those sites collecting their personal data. But just because Facebook and Wikipedia don’t charge you to use those doesn’t mean that an ISP not bound by net neutrality rules would refrain from adding, for instance, a $5 monthly “convenience fee” to view them.

In theory, a lack of net neutrality could bring true censorship. ISPs in several countries, like China and Russia, already block politically sensitive sites by government order. In a nightmarish political scenario where American companies existed in genuine fear of their government, ISPs could choose to block access to sensitive sites. If Trump’s current feud with NBC escalated to absurd lengths — and Trump is already able to send a company’s stock into free-fall with a single Tweet — a craven NBC could block access to, for instance, a Washington Post investigation that revealed improper Trump business ties.

The good news for consumers is that even though Trump will almost certainly have a majority-Republican FCC — traditionally, the five-member FCC is made up of three members of the president’s party and two of the opposition — overturning net neutrality rules is no simple task, especially because a U.S. Court of Appeals so recently ruled in favor of them.

“They’d have to show to a court that circumstance had changed, within the space of two years, as to warrant the re-reclassification of broadband to a deregulated information service,” Sohn said. “They can’t just snap their fingers and say ‘ok we’re now deregulating broadband.’”

And while a united Congress and President Trump certainly could pass a law to kill net neutrality if they agreed to it together, it would likely face enormous public opposition. After a campaign led by numerous activist groups including the Center For Democracy and Technology, Free Press, and Fight For the Future, and bolstered by a viral video from John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight, more than four million people wrote in to the FCC when it considered net neutrality rules in 2014, a number exponentially higher than any prompted by any other issue, including Janet Jackson’s exposed breast during Super Bowl XXXVIII. 

To date, even ISPs that push the boundaries of what might violate net neutrality have never expressed anything remotely like the political censorship described above. A more realistic fear, Sohn said, is that a partisan, Republican-majority FCC could simply decline to enforce net neutrality, despite the rules, because only the FCC would ever stop them.

“What they especially want,” Wood said, “is enforcement without any kind of teeth.”

That, at least, stands a good chance of being the reality under a Trump administration — minor, relatively harmless net neutrality infractions like a Verizon allowing visits to a partner site to not count against a consumer’s data cap.

Sohn hopes that if the situation gets worse, the public will respond in kind. “My sense is that a lot of people who voted for Donald Trump didn’t vote for a complete and total deregulation for the communications sector,” she said.

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