Today marks your final opportunity to submit comments to federal regulators who want to undo the government's net neutrality rules for Internet providers, in a move that could have sweeping implications for the future of the Web.
The push to weaken or eliminate the rules has been met with praise from industry officials who argue that deregulation will support renewed investments in America's Internet networks, while consumer groups have slammed the proposal as a handout to big businesses and a potential threat to consumer choice.
The looming deadline reflects the end of the Federal Communications Commission's public comment period — a weeks-long window during which regular Americans can weigh in on agency proposals — on the issue. As of Wednesday morning, nearly 22 million comments had been filed in the net neutrality docket so far, with more than 8.5 million of those flooding in over the past month alone.
Here's why technology experts see this as such a big deal — and what you can do to weigh in.
Remind me again. What is net neutrality?
Net neutrality is the idea that your Internet provider, be it Comcast, Verizon, AT&T or Charter, shouldn't be allowed to arbitrarily manipulate Internet content you've requested as it travels across their networks. It's a concept that says all websites, applications and services should be equally accessible to the consumer and not slowed down, blocked or subjected to extra fees before it reaches your screen.
In 2015, the FCC approved a set of rules that sought to codify that principle into practice. Led by Democrats at the time, the agency rammed the proposal through over the objections of Republicans — some of the same officials, in fact, who now control the FCC in the Trump era.
And these Republicans are the ones who want to undo the rules?
Precisely. The FCC's current chairman, Ajit Pai, has made no secret of his opposition to the net neutrality regulations his predecessor put in place. When the rules first passed, Pai called them “intrusive government regulations that won't work to solve a problem that doesn't exist using legal authority the FCC doesn't have.”
Essentially, Pai argued, Internet providers weren't interested in blocking websites or throttling content, so there is no need for the FCC's “Open Internet order” prohibiting the practice.
Is that really true?
Well, for what it's worth, some Internet providers have pledged to uphold the ideals of net neutrality. Comcast, in a blog post, has said that it supports strong and legally enforceable net neutrality rules.
“We don’t and won’t block, throttle, or discriminate against lawful content,” the company said in a July blog post. “We also believe in full transparency; you’ll know what our customer policies are.”
Other industry groups, such as the cable trade association NCTA, have made similar pledges, including taking out ads in The Washington Post portraying themselves as on the side of consumers.
Are their promises too good to be true?
In general, companies that make misleading or deceptive statements in their marketing are at risk of a lawsuit or other enforcement by the Federal Trade Commission. (There's a side debate over how much jurisdiction the FTC has over Internet providers, which you can dig into here, but we won't go into it now.) So you can probably rely on the specifics of these pledges, so far as they go. But it means that how words are defined, and what isn't being said, is just as important as what is. Put a bookmark in that, because we'll come back to it.
What about this idea that Internet providers support net neutrality?
Because net neutrality is fundamentally a principle or ideal, anyone can claim to support it without necessarily backing the specific legal machinery the government has put in place to defend it. Internet providers have explicitly made this argument, saying that while they back “net neutrality,” they just don't support the FCC's implementation, which sought to regulate providers like legacy telephone companies. Proponents of this move, known as “reclassification,” said this particular approach was the only way the principle of net neutrality could properly be preserved. Industry supporters say there are a number of other ways you could do it, such as with an act of Congress or by using a different part of the FCC's powers, but critics of that approach say it's fraught with loopholes and opportunities for Internet providers to game the system.
And that brings us back to what isn't being said?
Right. Even though many Internet providers are willing to say they don't or won't block content, that's not the only tactic the industry has considered as it tries to adapt to a rapidly changing business environment. Providers have tinkered with the idea of giving you discounts if you allow them to sell your browsing history; of giving you “free” access to Netflix and Spotify if you agree to a lower-quality stream; of getting users to watch proprietary TV content over cellular data. Each of these new models has ostensible benefits as well as drawbacks to the consumer. The question is: How far can carriers go to find new ways of profiting off everyone else who uses the Internet, websites and app developers included?
That's ultimately what the net neutrality fight is all about. And even as Internet providers claim to support strong rules, or oppose blocking and throttling, you can rest assured that those same companies are constantly on the lookout for revenue schemes that challenge our conventional assumptions about what it means to be an Internet provider. And they'll be seeking to shape any net neutrality regulation in ways that permit them to continue experimenting.
So what can I do about this?
Whether you support or oppose the FCC's deregulatory effort, you can file a public comment on the issue by visiting the relevant docket, then clicking "+New Filing.”
What happens next?
The FCC is supposed to take all those comments into account as it designs the final order that closes out the issue.
Hasn't there been a huge controversy over the FCC comments?
There has. People on both sides of the debate have complained of comments being falsely submitted in other people's names, bots and automated comments, hate speech and even hacking of the FCC's systems. So far, the FCC has sought to distance itself from the fray, saying it'll lend more weight to “high-quality” comments but declining to really define what that means.
But ultimately, none of that may matter, because politically speaking, Republicans at the commission have all the votes they need to accomplish their goal of rolling back the net neutrality rules. Outnumbering Democrats by 3 to 2, Republicans now have an opportunity to deliver some payback in response to what they saw in 2015 as an unprecedented, unilateral move to regulate the industry.
So why should I file a comment at all?
Once the FCC votes to repeal its rules (probably later this year), opponents of the decision will have an opportunity to challenge it in court. If you've been following this issue closely, you know that Internet providers did the same thing in 2015 after the FCC voted for the initial implementation of the rules. If the FCC's latest proposal winds up being challenged by consumer groups, you can expect the number of comments filed on behalf of either side to become a key talking point as everyone tries to demonstrate that in fact, “the majority of the public really supported position X, not Y.”
Even as many are questioning the integrity of the process — and thus the small-d democratic institution known as civic engagement — the surest way to defend it is to engage.