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The FCC is Ready to Crush Net Neutrality — Here’s How We’re All Screwed if It Happens

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai Speaks At American Enterprise Institute
Getty Images

Do you believe that, as an internet user, you should be free to go to whichever websites you choose? If so, take a good look at the picture above — because this man is your enemy.

This is Ajit Pai, and he’s Donald Trump’s FCC chairman. He used to work for Verizon. And because of him, on Dec. 14, the FCC will be voting to let your internet service provider (someone like AT&T or, hey — Verizon!) make the call on what kind of websites you’re allowed to see.

"ISPs would have to tell you what their plans are, and the FCC would have authority to hold them to those plans — but not really interfere with those plans. It would basically let ISPs make up their own rules and govern their own behavior."Except, that’s not really what will happen. What’s really going to happen is that your internet service is about to become a lot like your cable service — expensive and with terrible customer service.

Under Pai’s new rules, your internet service provider (ISP) will be able to charge you extra if you want to see the “entire web.” It’ll also allow ISPs to charge websites themselves for a “fast lane” — the ability to connect to your computer at faster speeds. And it’s a move that will push the internet out of the hands of the people and into the hands of major corporations. (Which, yes, is something that is already happening, but let’s not make it worse, okay?)

Pai’s plan — which has been his No. 1 goal since taking office — would completely undo the “Net Neutrality” procedures the FCC put into place two years ago under former chairman Tom Wheeler. Under those rules, the internet is treated like a utility — like, say, an electric company. Your electric company gets to charge you for the electricity you use, but it has no say on how you use that electricity. It also can’t charge you more than your neighbor for electricity.

Your enemy, in case you forgot what he looks like. (Dupont Photographers / FCC)
Your enemy, in case you forgot what he looks like. (Dupont Photographers / FCC)

But maybe you say — hey, this is America. Shouldn’t the free market decide how all this works?

And under normal circumstances, I would say “yes.” Except here’s the problem with that argument — the free market works for consumers when markets have the opportunity to let in new players. Some new company can come should be able to come along and say, “Hey, we’re the company that doesn’t charge you that extra stuff! Try us!”

But that’s not really feasible in the current media landscape. Just like in cable TV, you can’t establish a company like AT&T or Verizon or Comcast or DirecTV (which is owned by AT&T) or Time Warner (which is in the process of being bought by AT&T) in a meaningful enough way to compete against them. The overwhelming majority of Americans access the internet through mega-giant ISPs, and it’s in the interest of those mega-giants to kind of quietly decide to charge you through the nose for internet access. Because no one else can come along and give you the access they can.

Under Pai’s rules, ISPs would have to tell you what their plans are, and the FCC would have authority to hold them to those plans — but not really interfere with those plans. It would basically let ISPs make up their own rules and govern their own behavior.

Lifting the rules will allow Internet providers to experiment with new ways of making money. In recent years, some broadband companies such as AT&T have tried offering discounts on Internet service to Americans so long as they agree to let the company monitor their Web browsing history, for example. Other companies such as Verizon have exempted their own proprietary apps from mobile data caps, in a bid to drive user engagement. The practice, known as zero-rating, was criticized by the prior FCC as a potential violation of net neutrality principles, but Pai rescinded his predecessor’s findings upon taking office. — Washington Post, “FCC Plan Would Give Internet Proiders Power to Choose the Sites Customers See and Use,” Nov. 21, 2017.

None of this will happen overnight. It’ll be a slow, gradual process that keeps people from complaining about it. Your internet bill itself won’t go up immediately. It’ll start in small ways first — for instance:

"And because there aren’t any other ISPs big enough to fight against the mega-giants — just like there aren’t competitors to really fight against your cable company — you’re stuck paying whatever the ISPs want to charge." Netflix is the single largest devourer of broadband bandwidth in the U.S. It takes a lot internet to stream those movies and TV shows to you. Because Netflix eats up so much bandwidth, ISPs can basically hold them hostage over internet speeds. “Wanna keep streaming that 4K video at top speeds, Netflix? You’re going to have to pay for it.” Which means your Netflix subscription will go up.

Your ability to see the internet content you like will be directly dependent on your favorite website’s ability to meet whatever new fees ISPs place on them, like the ways 1930s neighborhood stores had to pay the Mafia a protection fee. And once that system settles in, only then will you start seeing tiered plans for internet service. It’ll be just like cable TV is now. You want to see the channels you REALLY like? You’re going to have to pony up some cash.

And because there aren’t any other ISPs big enough to fight against the mega-giants — just like there aren’t competitors to really fight against your cable company — you’re stuck paying whatever the ISPs want to charge.

I would even say all of that would be fine if the internet was like cable TV — a luxury. But that’s not really the case with the internet anymore, is it? It’s not just a toy for chatting anymore, is it How much of people’s day-to-day jobs now depend on the internet? It’s tough enough for small businesses to be able to buy into certain web tools to make their businesses run on the web. Well, guess what — costs will go up for them, too, as the price of “fast-lane” internet trickles down.

So, what can we do about this? At this point, Congress would have to step in and create legislation that supersedes the FCC. That’s right — we, as consumers, are basically left to hoping that CONGRESS will actually help us.

As of right now? Man it looks like we’re screwed.

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