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Your Internet Access Under Trump

The internet has become part of everyday American life in ways most of us didn't think possible at the start of the twenty-first century. The changes have been steady and constant over the past twenty years, with phrases like "Google it" and "unfriended" working their way into our everyday conversations and the connected lifestyle transforming the way we work, play, shop, conduct financial transactions, and even find love. According to the Pew Research Center, fifty-two percent of Americans had internet access in 2000; the number skyrocketed to 84 percent by 2015.[1] Since the days of 56k dial-up modems, access has improved with each technological breakthrough. From cable and DSL networks to wireless networking, to development of mobile technologies that have changed the way we interact with the world and one another, the upward trajectory of both quality and access has been evident.

The relationship between Americans and the internet has been defined by what is commonly known as the "fair and free" internet. If you have a connection, you can visit any website, any time. If you can build a website to compete with Amazon.com, the only thing stopping you is your ingenuity and creativity. Regulatory changes under the current administration may change that "free and fair" landscape permanently.

To understand these changes and their potential impact on the American people, we need to take a quick look at how internet-related policymaking works. One of the most significant problems is the unavoidable fact that technological advances happen much faster than the lawmaking process; as a result, most regulation is reactive, not proactive.

Congress can pass laws regulating just about anything, but when it comes to internet policy, the Legislative Branch seems content to pass the buck on controversial issues. This policy-making power then falls to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). The FCC "regulates interstate and international communications by radio, television, wire, satellite, and cable in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and U.S. territories."[2] The Commission is an independent U.S. government agency that implements and enforces America's communications laws and regulations.

The Net Neutrality Debate
The term "net neutrality" refers to the rules that have forced internet service providers and other telecommunication companies to keep the internet free and fair. This concept is based on the principle that service providers can't discriminate among websites, apps, or any other online service. Service providers own the pipes the data passes through, but they have no control over what goes through the pipes.

The concept of Net Neutrality goes back to rules passed by the FCC in 1976, protecting early providers of data services from interference by AT&T, which owned the telephone lines that were exclusively used to move data in those days. As broadband service became popular in the early 00s, service providers became increasingly interested in regulating users at both ends of the pipe. It may seem hard to believe today, but in the early 00s, service providers like AT&T and Comcast were banning the use of home wifi and VPN.[3] When telcos moved to bloc internet-based voice services like Skype, which competed with their core telephone business, the FCC stepped in and passed rules guaranteeing the freedom to access content, use applications, attach personal devices, and obtain service plan information. Net Neutrality became official policy.

The next challenge to net neutrality arrived when companies like Netflix began competing seriously with cable TV companies who are also major Internet Service Providers. Service providers wanted Netflix to pay extra for the bandwidth it was consuming. Netflix held that its customers were paying for the bandwidth and were entitled to use it. In 2015, the FCC upheld and strengthened the previous net neutrality rules, over the objections of FCC commissioner Ajit Pai. In early 2017, Donald Trump appointed Pai as Chairman of the FCC, and in December 2017, the agency passed rules rescinding net neutrality, after a contentious discussion that saw extensive manipulation of the agency's public comment process.[4] As of now, the American Internet is no longer neutral.

What It Means
In a neutral internet, service providers cannot discriminate among content providers. Because the companies that control online access can't play favorites, your online store gets to operate on the same network as Amazon.com. Your blog gets to run on the same network as FoxNews.com, and people worldwide can access your podcast the same way they access Netflix. It's all a level playing field.

How will the removal of Net Neutrality change affect you? It's still too early to say, but we do know what changes can occur going forward, and they're significant. By ending net neutrality, service providers like Verizon and Comcast can charge more money to use different websites. Much of the global economy depends on the Internet, so limiting access to specific websites could have a massive impact. Would you still use Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram if you had to pay for the privilege every month? What about Amazon or Netflix? By creating tiered service plans, the open community concept of the internet could quickly disappear. Without net neutrality, internet service providers can create "high-speed lanes" for websites or companies willing to pay a premium. They could even block specific sites or apps altogether to force those sites to pay more for the privilege of being available to their customers.

These are not merely apocalyptic scare tactics. Without net neutrality, nothing is stopping any of this from taking place. These concerns are particularly serious for Americans who have limited choice of service providers: 48 percent of American census blocks have only one broadband service provider.[5] If the only service provider in your area suddenly wants you to buy an expensive premium package to use the sites you prefer, what choice do you have?

Who's opposing net neutrality? Mainly Internet service providers who claim that neutrality regulations cut their profits and their ability to invest in new and better delivery technology. They point out that companies like Netflix, YouTube, and other video streaming and peer-to-peer sharing services chew up enormous amounts of bandwidth without paying for it, and that online call services use networks contrasted by telcos without cost. Traditional conservatives who believe that government regulation should be rolled back wherever possible as a matter of principle also oppose net neutrality in principle.