Net neutrality officially bows out, as Federal Communications Commission chairman Ajit Pai’s Restoring Internet Freedom Order goes into effect today.
The policy, approved last December, effectively rolls back measures instituted under previous FCC chairman Tom Wheeler, which barred preferential treatment of Internet traffic speeds. In practical terms, it means that large companies could pay broadband Internet providers to ensure faster connections to their web sites, while independent retailers that can’t afford the cost may suffer comparatively slower speeds. Critics of Pai’s measure believe the repeal gives Netflix, YouTube and other services with large coffers an unfair competitive advantage.
But the matter goes beyond streaming entertainment. If those who manage the very pipes of the Internet itself can speed up or slow down connection speeds at will — or prioritize traffic based on who’s willing to pay the most — it would be hard to estimate the deleterious effect on competition across countless industries. The issue would basically touch every company that does business online. Amazon, Walmart and Target could ensure their customers have fast and easy access, while web site visitors at Little Mama’s Dress Shop constantly time out.
This is the very monopolistic scenario that the Senate tried to guard against last month, when it voted 52-47 to strike down Pai’s measure.
Previously, Congress voted to regulate broadband Internet like a utility, but the new policy obviates this classification, paving the way for providers to do what they like. And while other matters of policy sometimes bow to different rules instituted by state legislatures, the Restoring Internet Freedom Order bars states from creating their own net neutrality rules.
The Senate voted to block the measure in May, but the move required the House of Representatives to follow suit. And it didn’t. In fact, by the Monday deadline, the House had not voted on the issue at all.
The Democrats blamed House Republicans for the failure to act: “By refusing to bring up the Senate-passed resolution to restore net neutrality, which passed the Senate by a powerful bipartisan vote, House Republican leaders gave a green light to the big ISPs to charge middle-class Americans, small business owners, schools, rural Americans, and communities of color more to use the Internet,” said Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.).