What the Loss of ‘Net Neutrality’ Means For You

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Net Neutrality - Save the Internet

Net Neutrality is a term that has meant that every Internet Service Provider (ISP) is to treat every website and online service the same, with no exceptions. This was actually codified in law — up until the first weeks of January 2014, when the U.S. courts struck it down.

ISPs rejoiced, while websites quaked in their shoes and cried, “FOUL!” Many of us netizens (citizens of the Internet) who were aware of the case also took to social media and the phone to do the same. I’m going to give you some background on the original law, and then I’m going to go into painful detail about what it might mean to you.

What Net Neutrality Laws Meant

In effect, net neutrality meant that no ISP could give precedence or favor in bandwidth to any websites or services for any reason. These laws were put in place to ensure that larger companies that owned their own online services could not throttle (decrease the bandwidth available for) websites or services owned by competitors without suffering severe legal penalties. This has been an extremely important issue to a number of groups that I have been a member of over the years.

Many of the largest ISPs in the United States and Canada have extensive holdings beyond just providing Internet access to consumers. I’m not going to name names (although I want to) but, suffice it to say that the aforementioned organizations raised quite a stink when these companies started buying up Internet properties that delivered other services, like streaming content, to their customers.

We worried that these companies would unfairly impact the ability of consumers to enjoy what they’re paying for because they may own or be affiliated with a competitor.

D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals Ruling Strikes Down Net Neutrality

A number of years ago, the then-Commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission issued a ruling that was called “The Open Internet rule,” which I described above. Again, that ruling stated that no company could give precedence to any service or site they owned when making bandwidth available to consumers. This ruling was appealed in late 2013 in the Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia (D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals).

On January 14th of 2014, that court handed down their ruling (PDF) — they struck down the original provisions of the previous order. What this has done iss effectively stated that ISPs can throttle bandwidth from sites and services owned by competitors, or they can charge a service fee per month for those sites and services — like YouTube and Netflix. In other words, YouTube could in effect legally be charged for every video clip you watch on their site — or you could be. Additionally, they could adversely impact the business of services either owned by competitors or that they don’t own — services such as Netflix.

What This Recent Ruling May Mean to You

In a nutshell, this recent ruling could adversely affect you in the pocketbook. If you’re a customer of Netflix and a customer of a certain provider that owns a service that competes with Netflix, you could see your monthly subscription raised. Then Netflix can pay to be able to ensure that you can enjoy your video streaming without having to wait for the video to load, or you may have to pay a service fee to your provider to ensure that they don’t throttle you back.

However, what would you be able to do to ensure that even if you paid, they still didn’t throttle you? The ruling means there most likely will no longer be any independent oversight to ensure it doesn’t happen.

What Can You Do to Fight for Net Neutrality?

Normally, I stay away from politics in this column, but this is an issue that may impact almost everyone at one time or in one way or another. There have been a number of petition drives that have been started to try and get either Congress or the White House to act to protect and preserve Net Neutrality for all.

The reason that the Court of Appeals was able to strike down the original ruling is that it used shaky logic and legal grounds. There are also petitions circulating asking to have the FCC rewrite the ruling so that it stands on better legal grounds and will be harder to fight in the future.

Photo Credit: Steve Rhodes

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