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On Thursday, Ajit Pai and the conservative faction of the Federal Communications Commission voted to end Obama-era policies protecting the principle of Net Neutrality — the idea that all data, such as video, music and email, must be treated the same by internet service providers. The move opens the possibility for ISPs like Comcast or Verizon to adjust speed, cost, and access to different websites or types of data. Here's what that could mean for you and the country.

Two Tracks

Primarily, net neutrality advocates are concerned about the creation of a more expensive "fast lane" of internet access for businesses and individual customers. 

The biggest concern is that the internet will become pay-to-play technology with two tiers: one that has speedy service and one that doesn’t. The high-speed lane would be occupied by big internet and media companies, and affluent households. For everyone else there would be the slow lane.

The brand-name internet companies like Google, Facebook, Amazon and Netflix, analysts say, will comfortably be able to pay the higher rent. It will not affect their business, though it may crimp their profits. Avoiding higher prices is one reason the major internet companies have been champions of net neutrality.

[The New York Times]

Expect Mobile Plans To Be Affected First

As Wired points out, many mobile plans already have built-in data caps — making them the easiest targets for new data pricing or access structures. You can expect mobile plans to be the first place you'll see companies charging more for access to certain websites or streaming services.

Because many internet services for mobile devices include limits on data use, the changes will be visible there first. In one dramatic scenario, internet services would begin to resemble cable-TV packages, where subscriptions could be limited to a few dozen sites and services. Or, for big spenders, a few hundred. Fortunately, that’s not a likely scenario. Instead, expect a gradual shift towards subscriptions that provide unlimited access to certain preferred providers while charging extra for everything else.


Other Countries Give A Preview Of Our Grim Future

Slate looks at other countries that don't have net neutrality to get a peek at what America's grim future may look like, and it isn't pretty:

In many countries without net neutrality, mobile plans are the worst culprit. Take what happens in Guatemala, for example. “Many people will have two SIM cards there because on one SIM card they can access WhatsApp for free, and on another SIM card you access Facebook for free,” says Renata Avila, a senior adviser at the Web Foundation. If you buy a small amount of data that gets used up quickly, WhatsApp will still be accessible after the cap is reached, but not the rest of the internet. If you do try to access other websites or apps, you’ll be prompted to pay more. Similar mobile internet plans exist in Balkan countries, Avila said, but there you might buy a SIM card that favors Viper, a popular messaging service in that region.


Small Business Will Have To Spend More And Work Harder To Compete

With ISPs prioritizing their own services and businesses over others, small companies that benefited under the equal access that net neutrality provided could find themselves shut out and paying more. Even if small businesses want to make a deal with ISPs to gain access to preferential treatment, corporate bureaucracy could make that difficult.

Small businesses and entrepreneurs will have to bear the costs of pay-to-play internet service, which could make it harder to achieve scale without providing a cut of their revenue to their broadband provider. Those that don’t pay will find themselves at a commercial disadvantage.

In addition, without net neutrality, businesses won’t have much in the way of recourse against the conduct of broadband providers. Instead, broadband providers will have the power to carve internet access into fast lanes for online services with which they are affiliated or develop commercial relationships, while consigning all others to secondary roads with slower speed.

[The Harvard Business Review]

How The Decision Could Make Poverty Worse

The internet has become a utility that is as fundamental as electricity. It's almost impossible to find or apply to well-paying jobs without it. 20% of Americans aren't connected to the internet, mostly because of its price. With the end of net neutrality and more costly internet prices, that number may increase, which would increase the number of people unable to access fundamental job services, education and communication. The heads of The New York Public Library explained the problem in a Verge op-ed.

Without the current protections, the already yawning digital divide will be widened. We know in New York City, millions of families cannot afford broadband access at home. These families are in our branches, borrowing Wi-Fi hot spots, or using our public computers to do homework, pay bills, apply for jobs, or communicate with relatives. For these New Yorkers, the 216 library branches across the city are their only option for access to technology. For the FCC to place internet access — something that in today’s world is a necessity, not a luxury — even further out of reach is appalling.

[The Verge]

The Argument Against Net Neutrality... Is A Bad One

While 83% of Americans support net neutrality, there is an argument against the principle. ISPs argue that less investment is put into infrastructure because of lost profits.

If [ISPs] respect net neutrality, they cannot impose special burdens on consumers who occupy lots of bandwidth by running data-intensive applications during periods of peak use. Nor can they ban Internet services that compete with their own offerings of cable TV or telephony, thus denying them a lucrative source of revenue. The result may be an underinvestment in infrastructure improvement, which is not good for Netflix and Skype, which depend on fast and ever-improving networks. Predictably, then, network operators prefer that the government not tell them how to run their networks and embrace industry self-regulation instead.

[Boston Review]

As Wired points out, however, the argument that ISPs have invested less in infrastructure due to Net Neutrality is complicated, and that the largest ISP in the country actually increased infrastructure investment with net neutrality.

In its proposal to repeal the rules, which were enacted in 2015, the FCC cites industry-funded studies concluding that investment in internet infrastructure declined 3 percent in 2015 and another 2 percent in 2016... Comcast, the nation’s largest internet provider, increased its capital expenditures... for cable communications by about 13 percent in 2015, and by another 8.6 percent in 2016, to a total of $7.6 billion... The increased investment was in line with what Comcast told investors after the FCC passed its new rules... "It really hasn't affected the way we have been doing our business or will do our business," Comcast Cable’s then-CEO Neil Smit told investors in May 2015. 


The Immediate Future Isn't Very Bright

Now that Net Neutrality has been voted down, the decision can be challenged in two ways: Congress and the courts. Neither of these look very promising.

As April Glaser notes in Slate, Congress has the power to turn back the decision, but the fact that both houses are Republican doesn't bode well for the idea:

Since Trump took office, Congress has worked to reverse more than a dozen regulatory actions—but these were Obama-era rules. While this scenario is more likely to unfold in an alternate universe where Republicans have a sensible understanding of internet policy, it’s not an unworthy goal in the one we inhabit. Republicans did, after all, resist one regulatory reversal this year, as when Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency tried to undo Obama-era climate change law in May and three GOP senators broke with their party to join Democrats in opposition and succeeded in keeping the rule in question intact. 


Others want Congress to enshrine Net Neutrality legislatively, but Dana Floberg argues that that option comes with risks.

Passing a new bill with enough support from current Republican leadership would mean watering down the rules and undermining internet users’ rights.... The most recent attempt at legislation... would have preserved only some of the existing rules — while leaving enormous loopholes enabling companies to discriminate against online content and violate Net Neutrality principles...  [I]nside D.C. this is a deeply partisan issue. Passing a good bill through this Congress, with this president while facing off against an army of ISP lobbyists and their mountains of campaign cash would be impossible.

[The Hill]

The other option immediate challenge that the vote could face is through a court challenge calling the decision "arbitrary and capricious." Klint Finley writes in Wired that such a challenge is unlikely to succeed. While the FCC's current explanation, that investment has decreased under Net Neutrality, is under dispute, "Courts generally side with agencies on those types of issues," says U Penn Law Professor Christopher Yoo.

A final option is to challenge the vote based the fraudulent comments scandal surrounding it. Over 7 millions of the 21.7 million public comments submitted on the vote were found to be fake. 443,938 of those were from Russian email addresses. The New York Attorney general says the massive interference is grounds for a lawsuit, arguing that there wasn't a fair and open commentary period. While the case proceeds, however, it's unlikely that a court would stop the vote from going through.

Benjamin Goggin is the News Editor at Digg. 

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