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This Week Could Mark the End of the Web as We Know It

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On Thursday, the Federal Communications Commission, led by Republican Ajit Pai, will almost certainly vote 3–2 to repeal rules put in place by the FCC during President Obama's administration that are commonly referred to as net neutrality. In short, net neutrality seeks to equalize the internet playing field. But its detractors—namely, big telecoms and their financial beneficiaries—have argued that net neutrality stifles innovation and that a free-market approach will unleash the web's full potential.

So what does it all mean? Is it no big deal, as Pai and the telecoms want you to believe? Or will it fundamentally alter the public sphere of the internet, as critics warn? To help you out, we've put together a quick and dirty guide to net neutrality.

On Thursday, the Federal Communications Commission, led by Republican Ajit Pai, will almost certainly vote 3–2 to repeal rules put in place by the FCC during President Obama’s administration that are commonly referred to as net neutrality. In short, net neutrality seeks to equalize the internet playing field. But its detractors—namely, big telecoms and their financial beneficiaries—have argued that net neutrality stifles innovation and that a free-market approach will unleash the web’s full potential. So what does it all mean? Is it no big deal, as Pai and the telecoms want you to believe? Or will it fundamentally alter the public sphere of the internet, as critics warn? To help you out, we’ve put together a quick and dirty guide to net neutrality.

Net neutrality
[noun, first known usage 2003]:
“the idea, principle, or requirement that Internet service providers should or must treat all Internet data as the same regardless of its kind, source, or destination.” —Merriam-Webster Unabridged Dictionary
In other words, it’s the concept that all internet traffic and data should be treated equally.

What does that mean?
Your internet provider, or ISP, can’t decide suddenly that it’s going to make it slower to stream your favorite show on Netflix or that great new album on Spotify (this is called “throttling”) because those apps aren’t paying the provider enough.

OK, but what does it mean for me?
It means ISPs can’t charge you more for using certain services, like Twitter or Facebook. Everything has to be equal. Without net neutrality, ISPs like Verizon can decide to charge you more for the services you use. The big companies—like Google and Amazon, and probably Facebook and Spotify—will be able to pay for that, which will put them at a big advantage over newcomers to the market. Or an ISP could decide that while The New York Times gets top-shelf service, your little olINDY is relegated to the second or third tier, and it takes you forever to load our pages.



Imagine a provider deciding that it would charge you, in addition to its flat service rate, additional fees for using Instagram and WhatsApp.

Why is the FCC getting rid of net neutrality?
Pai argues that net neutrality has hurt smaller companies, and that once the rules are repealed, telecom companies will still have to be transparent about their fees, so no harm done. But it’s not like companies haven’t already gotten caught up in content delivery issues. In 2014, before the net neutrality rules were put in place, for example, Comcast throttled Netflix streaming until Netflix paid more to increase streaming speeds.

There’s a reason the big telecoms are the most outspoken supporters of repealing net neutrality, while content providers are almost universally opposed: telecoms stand to make a mint off the Wild West of unregulated internet access.

That sounds bad.
Wait until you hear about the free-speech implications. Not only will ISPs be able to favor their own content over that of their competitors, but they’ll also—in theory—be able to throttle content they don’t like or that doesn’t further their interests. There would be nothing (besides public shame) stopping an ISP, for instance, from throttling The Washington Post while giving priority status to Breitbart. Without net neutrality, the free-speech organization Free Press has noted, “a company like Verizon could decide where its users can go for news and what stories get buried online. Verizon could strike a deal with CNN and hinder its subscribers’ abilities to access alternative news sources.”

So, you’re saying that internet companies will win, and I’ll lose?
Here’s what former FCC chairman Tom Wheeler recently told NPR: “If you like your cable company, then you’ll love what’s going to happen to the internet because suddenly the rules—instead of being open, the rules now will [resemble] what your rules are if you’re a cable company where the cable company decides who you can get access to, what your prices will be.”

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