Net neutrality protections moved closer to coming off the books today with the publication of the Federal Communication Commission’s new rules in the Federal Register.
Parts of the change are set to go into effect on April 23rd, however the bulk of the order — which reverses the tough net neutrality rules put into place in 2015 — still doesn’t have a date for when it’ll be official. That’s because the rules modify data collection requirements and therefore have to be approved by the Office of Management and Budget. Once that happens, the FCC will publish another document in the Federal Register announcing when net neutrality protections are actually done for.
The publication means that a new fight around net neutrality is about to begin. States and other parties may now be able to sue over the rules — some have already gotten started — and a battle in Congress will kick off over a vote to reverse the order entirely. While that fight likely won’t get far in Congress since Republicans by and large oppose net neutrality and control both chambers, there will likely be a long and heated legal battle around the corner for the FCC’s new policy.
The FCC’s new rules are really a lack of rules. Its “Restoring Internet Freedom” order entirely revokes the net neutrality regulations put in place back in 2015 and replaces them with basically nothing. Internet providers can now block, throttle, and prioritize content if they want to. The only real rule here is that they have to disclose if they’re doing any of this.
By requiring disclosures, the FCC believes that it’s empowering the Federal Trade Commission to take over enforcement of any anti-competitive internet practices. The trouble is, the FTC can’t preempt those behaviors with specific rules — it can only act after the fact if it finds “unfair or deceptive” behavior — and the agency has a much broader focus, meaning only the most egregious issues are likely to draw attention.
So is the entire internet about to change? Not overnight, and probably not even in the immediate future. When it does change because of these lack of rules — and it will — it’ll be in subtle ways that are difficult to notice but will, ultimately, make a real difference.
One current practice that’s a sign of things to come is zero-rating, where internet providers offer free data when you use certain services. This sounds great on the surface (who wouldn’t want free data?), but it gives a huge advantage to the sites and services that the internet provider chooses to support. AT&T, for instance, offers free streaming of its own video services, like DirecTV Now, whereas subscribers still have to pay in order to stream Hulu. That means an AT&T customer may be more inclined to sign up for DirecTV than Hulu, which would make life harder for Hulu and other streaming video competitors.
Over the long run, this could allow established tech and telecom giants to pick the services that win and lose, rather than having them all compete on an even playing field and letting consumers pick which they like better. The imminent finalization of the rules doesn’t mean net neutrality is gone forever, though. It’s become clear that Americans are passionate about net neutrality, and legislators from both parties have acknowledged it’s something they’ll have to work on. It’s not clear how long it will take them to get around to it, but it means arguments around net neutrality certainly won’t end here.
Correction February 22nd, 11:55AM ET: This article initially stated that net neutrality rules would come off the books on April 23rd. While some changes go into effect April 23rd, the core changes stripping back net neutrality are delayed because they require OMB approval. The article has been updated to reflect this.