The speed of your internet service is -- cringe -- up to Congress

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Under the new rules, suspicions abound that a fast internet will be reserved only for bigger companies willing to pay. Unsplash.com

 

Last December, the Federal Communications Commission voted to get rid of Obama-era rules that regulate internet service providers -- your Comcasts and your CenturyLinks. Basically, the rules made it so everyone gets the same internet. Comcast can’t block or slow certain websites, and CenturyLink can’t send sites to die in buffering hell.

The ISPs argue that they should be able to do all that stuff. They built the internet highway, they claim, so why shouldn’t they be able to section off a Fastlane for those who can pay for it?

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai says Obama’s regulations hinder competition. These companies need room to innovate and try to out-do one other, he says, pushing for the same “light-touch” regulations they had before 2015, when the feds regulated “anti-competitive conduct” on a case-by-case basis.

Critics of the repeal worry that given a chance, the somewhat narrow market of ISPs will use its power to slow sites like Netflix unless unless it ponies up with more cash, causing users to pay more and granting their own video platforms speedier connections. They also worry smaller companies with fewer resources -- who rely on the internet as a great equalizer in a market otherwise dominated by big corporations -- won’t be able to buy their way into the fast lane.

Last week, the U.S. Senate made a bipartisan move to reverse the FCC’s repeal. Or at least as bipartisan as Congress gets: every single Democrat favored it, helped by three Republicans.

Twitter was excited.

But no matter what your Twitter feed says, that doesn’t mean net neutrality is “saved.” It means the measure moves to the House, which has until the end of the year to vote on it -- which it may not. After that, it would have to get signed by President Donald Trump, who hasn’t generally loved policies that have mostly Democratic support.

If anything, the vote is more of a Senate gesture to midterm voters. Still, people are starting to hope again. Plenty of social media users are using the hashtag to demand their House reps not to drop the ball.

Anna Boroff, the president of the Minnesota Cable Communications Association, is not a fan of reversing the FCC’s decision. Too “burdensome” for ISPs, she says. And besides:

“ISPs have made it clear, both before and after the FCC’s net neutrality decision, that they will not block, throttle, or otherwise discriminate against lawful content on the internet and have always been transparent with their customer agreements,” she said in a statement.

The question is whether ISPs, which hold monopolies in much of the United States, can be trusted. Tim Brown, the owner of the web design and marketing company HookAgency, isn’t sure.

“From what I’ve seen, I think net neutrality is a solution to a problem that hasn’t shown itself yet,” he says. He’s not too worried about the sudden throttling of websites to death – he thinks public outrage will curb that.

On the other hand, he knows it's happened in the past to Netflix in New York. Charter’s Spectrum-TWC allegedly tried to extract more fees from Netflix in order to make its site play faster. When the streaming service agreed to pay up, like magic, conditions improved. 

Still, Brown has a huge stake in how this turns out. Those who could be hurt most are ordinary users and small businesses, his company’s bread and butter. They’re also the people shouting the loudest for net neutrality to stick around.

Time will tell if Congress hears them. Minnesota's Republican Congressmen Tom Emmer, Erik Paulsen, and Jason Lewis all declined interview requests on how they’ll vote.


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