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Net Neutrality & Consumer Justice: Are Big Businesses About to Take Over the Internet?

Consumer justice advocates have sounded the alarm: New FCC rules could change how you use the internet, and how the internet uses you. Here’s what you need to know.1

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Prepare yourself. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is poised to repeal net neutrality rules later this month. In the not-too-distant future, Internet Service Providers (ISPs) could choose what websites you see, what apps you have to pay extra for, how fast your videos stream, and which websites appear at the top of your searches.

Imagine having to pay extra for social media or for watching videos on YouTube.2 As awful as that sounds, it may be the shape of things to come—and the new rules could impact more than your monthly budget.

Critics of the repeal, including some consumer justice attorneys, say it puts more power in the hands of big companies and less power in the hands of ordinary consumers. Supporters say net neutrality laws stifle innovation while undermining the very protections they claim to provide.

So, who is right? And what will the new internet regulations mean for you?

 

Understanding Net Neutrality

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Existing net neutrality regulations have been around since 2015 when democrats in the FCC attempted to level the online playing field. Under these current rules, ISPs like AT&T, Comcast, and Verizon are not allowed to block websites they don’t like or slow them down whenever they feel like it. Net neutrality also stops broadband providers from offering faster service to companies that grease their wallets with hefty payments or to consumers who pay extra fees.

The idea is simple: Both big and small companies get equal treatment when it comes to providing content. Giant telecommunications conglomerates aren’t allowed to give privilege to their own apps or their partners’ videos while leaving other, less affluent providers out in the cold. Meanwhile, consumers get nearly unfettered access to videos, music, apps, and online searches. More options mean more power, and more power means greater protection against well-funded special interests.

The FCC’s anticipated action may put all of that in jeopardy. In other words, the end of net neutrality could spell the end of the internet as you know it.

 

More or Less Consumer Protection?

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There are usually two sides to every story. The heated debate over net neutrality regulations is no exception. Supporters say the repeal represents not a brave new world of dystopian anarchy, but merely a return to the status quo which prevailed in the 20 years before 2015—a world of innovation and openness.3

According to them, net neutrality rules have crippled creativity, decreased investment, and limited the options open to consumers. Meanwhile, it has created a different set of rules for giant telecom agencies (e.g., Verizon, Comcast) than it has for titan content providers (the likes of Google and Facebook).

Pro-repeal advocates like Ajit Pai, the acting head of the FCC, also say that net neutrality rules undermine consumer justice rights by robbing the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) of its power to police ISPs.4 By giving the FTC back its teeth (i.e., its right to punish those who engage in unfair or privacy-violating practices), the new rules would actually protect consumers. Furthermore, updated regulations would require that ISPs be transparent about their practices.

Yet, how true is all that? Can the FTC actually punish wrongdoers? Will it? Would the new protections make up for the loss of the net neutrality architecture?

 

Read the Fine Print—or Else

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Critics say no: The proposed rules aren’t enough to protect consumers and small businesses from cutthroat practices and unscrupulous business interests. Yes, under the new rules, ISPs would have to tell consumers whether they’re blocking sites, slowing them down, or charging more for them, but here’s the catch: They don’t have to announce their intentions in big bold letters.

Instead, it will be up to consumers to read the fine print.5 Just as with existing privacy policies, abuses can easily hide beneath complex legal language. Skip the disclaimer, and you could receive a shock when your monthly bill comes around or when you realize you no longer have access to tweets or videos you once enjoyed for free.

Lack of transparency isn’t the only consequence of the proposed change. The dismantling of net neutrality could also have far-reaching implications for how we as a society use the internet and, thus, how we get our information.

 

The Big Will Get Bigger and the Small Will Get Shafted

In the coming years, things could change drastically. Content providers—those companies that deliver videos, apps, and games to your devices—may have to pay to play. Behemoths like Amazon and Netflix will be able to skirt around data caps and broadband limits by handing over a nice sum of money.

However, what about small- to medium-sized businesses that can’t afford to pay premiums for faster internet speeds? Smaller players would enjoy no such preferential treatment. From now on, it may be harder for you to access their sites. Over time, slower load times may translate into less search visibility, and that could impact your ability to access any unbiased information about products, services, and even politics.

Already, telecom companies exempt certain providers (e.g., such as some streaming music services) from data caps. Some say the repeal of net neutrality rules will only make the situation worse. The bottom line? The big guys will get bigger and faster. Meanwhile, the small guys will end up in the slow lane, and that could put them out of business.

 

Pay More for Streaming Content or Get Left in the Dust

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People who enjoy streaming content or playing online games may be hit particularly hard. If you currently watch shows on Netflix or Hulu, beware of what the future will bring. In a world without net neutrality, those streaming providers may have to pay more to deliver high-speed content—and, guess what? They’ll pass those costs onto you, the customer.

Some trend-watchers even predict that the internet will soon resemble cable TV, in which ISPs create subscription packages.6 You pay for a bundled service. In return, you get access to a limited set of websites and app providers that have been pre-selected by the ISP company.

Others suggest that the internet will be run like a mobile phone service—you sign up for certain plans that come with data caps and set broadband speeds. In such a world, you get what you pay for. Those who can’t fork over the extra cash will be stuck in coach. Their shows won’t load as fast. Their options will be fewer. Their access will be more restricted. Want to access 4k content on your new TV? In the future, Comcast may force you to pay for an unlimited account.

Realistically, changes will probably come at a gradual pace. Telecom companies will want to wait to see how the law works in practice, whether it will hold up over the long run, and what
consumer justice lawyers have to say about it. They may watch to see whether Congress bypasses the FCC and enacts its own version of net neutrality. And, of course, everyone will have their eye on 2020, when everything could change at the ballot box.

 

A Call to Action for Consumer Justice

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As a consumer justice attorney, I’ve been watching these developments with some trepidation. I’ve spent much of my career advocating for consumer justice, and I’m worried the repeal of net neutrality will compromise the rights of ordinary Americans. That’s why I’m asking you to get involved. Your best course of action is to stay informed and get politically active.

Consumer rights are everyone’s responsibility. Already, hundreds of thousands of people have signed petitions and made phone calls to Capitol Hill.7 Now it’s your turn. Want to get involved? Sign the Battle for the Net petition and contact your congressperson to make a difference.

 

Sources

1 The Washington Post. “FCC plan would give internet providers power to choose the sites customers see and use.”

2 US News and World Report. “How the end of net neutrality could affect your wallet.”

3 The Washington Post. “No, the FCC is not killing the internet.”

4 The Washington Post. “No, Republicans didn’t just strip away your Internet privacy rights.

5 NPR. “How will rolling back net neutrality affect consumers? You’ll have to read the fine print.

6 Wired. “Here’s how the end of net neutrality will change the internet.”

7 The New York Times. “Net neutrality hits a nerve, eliciting intense reactions.”

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Saunders & Walker
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