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November 29, 2017updated 30 Nov 2017 12:30pm

Net neutrality: what will change if the FCC’s chief gets his way?

The head of the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) wants to do away with net neutrality.

The FCC’s chairman, Ajit Pai, has ordered the committee to vote on the current net neutrality rules, imposed under the Obama administration. The Obama-era rules ensured internet service providers (ISPs) couldn’t block websites or impose limits on users depending on their content. This made open internet accessible to all.

If Pai has his way, however, this could all change. This is what he said:

“Under my proposal, the federal government will stop micromanaging the internet. Instead, the FCC would simple require internet service providers to be transparent about their practices so that consumers can buy the service plan that’s best for them and entrepreneurs and other small businesses can have the technical information they need to innovate.”

The argument from Pai is that broadband providers like AT&T and Verizon will be able to make more money from the internet, and use this to invest in their provisions and roll out broadband to more parts of the US. This would make connect more Americans online.

Read more: Net neutrality explained — why it is going to make using the internet in the US miserable

However, there are a whole host of issues at stake here. Florian Schaub, assistant professor of information at the University of Michigan, tells Verdict:

“Pai argues that removing net neutrality rules will enable innovation. He has it backwards, as the large opposition to the planned repeal by big internet companies like Google, Facebook and Amazon shows. A free internet ensures innovation by creating a level playing field for all companies regardless of their size.”

As well, its worth mentioning that Pai used to be a lawyer for Verizon, one of the ISPs that would benefit from these changes.

What will change if net neutrality ends?

1. It could spell the end of cryptocurrencies

One issue with net neutrality is that ISPs could decide to throttle access to certain sites, which is where they downgrade the speed of your broadband access. According to Motherboard, cryptocurrency enthusiasts are concerned that net neutrality could lead to ISPs throttling bitcoin exchanges.

For instance, lawyer Marvin Ammori, who is part of the Fight for the Future campaign group for net neutrality, explained it like this:

“If Comcast is the monopoly provider in an area, the provider could decide there’s a preferred Bitcoin exchange.”

ISPs could charge certain sites higher prices in order for them to not be throttled. This could affect access to digital currencies like bitcoin and ethereum.

2. Your Netflix binges might get more expensive

In keeping with the throttling / charging companies theme, there are concerns that the end of neutrality could put more costs on the consumers.

“If Netflix, Spotify, Amazon and other companies have to pay ISPs to ensure that their data reliably reaches their customers, those customers will eventually end up paying more for their Netflix subscription,” explains Shcaub.

But it could go further than this. Schaub says that there is also the risk that ISPs could make consumers pay for access to different websites, in the same way broadband providers offer TV channel bundles.

“Netflix and Facebook come for free with your basic package. Amazon Video? That’s only available in the extended package. You want access to all websites? Well, you need to sign up for the super premium package. All of a sudden, ISPs determine what content and resources you can have access to and which ones you can’t.”

3. New internet startups may find it harder to get off the ground

At the moment, all internet traffic is treated equally which is good for startups. They can have access to the same data and customers as bigger companies. Yet, this could change.

Around 1,000 startups and investors in the startup community created Startups for Net Neutrality. The group sent a letter to Pai, summing up their concerns:

“The success of American’s startup ecosystem depends on an open internet with enforceable net neutrality rules, ensuring that small companies can compete on a level playing field without the threat that their services will be discriminated against by big cable and wireless companies.”

Schaub echoes this. “Large companies may be able to pay such costs and make deals with ISPs [but] smaller companies, startups and non-profit organisations are suddenly faced with high costs to ensure that their services make it to consumers.

“Under the proposed changes innovation in the online space will become much more expensive with little benefit to consumers.”

What can be done?

The FCC’s vote surrounding net neutrality will take place on 14 December. Schaub says he’s hopefully the repeal will not pass but there’s a strong risk. “Everyone needs to rally against this. US citizens and residents should call the FCC and their senators and representatives to protect net neutrality.”

The website Save the internet contains resources about why net neutrality is important and how to contact US representatives.