Start watching your internet speeds and for odd-sounding deals from your service provider. The federal government’s net neutrality rules that ensured web sites and their content would be treated equally by broadband providers expired Monday. Now it’s up to Congress to restore those net neutrality rules that ensure a level playing field, and the House should bring that legislation up for a vote as soon as possible.
The Federal Communications Commission voted on a party-line 3-2 vote six months ago to reverse itself and kill the net neutrality rules it approved during the Obama administration. You can thank President Donald Trump for the death of those protections, because last year he appointed as FCC chair Ajit Pai, a long-time critic of net neutrality who made it his mission to reverse course. Pai has called the net neutrality rules a "creaky regulatory framework,’’ but they are necessary to keep quasi-monopolies from doing whatever they want and favoring some web sites and content over others.
The reality is that net neutrality worked well for years. It simply said broadband providers are quasi-public utilities that provide pipelines for information just as other utilities provide lines for natural gas or electricity. The ISPs control the pipelines and profit from their use, but they could not dictate what flows through them. The net neutrality rules recognized that high-speed internet has become an essential service just like water, electricity and phones.
Monday’s expiration of those rules wiped away those protections. Now internet providers are free to block certain web sites, force them to load at lower speeds or force their customers to pay more for access to the website they may care about most. All the providers have to do is publicly disclose their intentions. The reality is internet users probably won’t see their speeds dramatically slowing this week. Verizon, AT&T and other internet providers have said they will not block or slow content.
What might happen sooner as internet providers experiment with their newfound flexibility? The Washington Post reports that it might be harder to discover start-up services. Or consumers might be offered discounts on internet service if they let their broadband provider access their browsing history. Or maybe a provider will offer unlimited access to a mobile app it owns but count the usage of other apps against the consumer’s monthly data cap. Buyer beware.
The best consumer protection would be for Congress to restore the net neutrality rules. The legislation already has passed the Senate on a bipartisan vote, with Florida Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson voting for it and Republican Sen. Marco Rubio voting against it. The issue also could be a campaign issue in the Senate race, with Nelson backing net neutrality rules and Republican Gov. Rick Scott opposing them.
With House Speaker Paul Ryan refusing to take up the legislation in the House, signatures are being gathered on a petition to force the Republican leadership to take up the issue. A number of Florida Democrats, including U.S. Reps. Kathy Castor of Tampa and Charlie Crist of St. Petersburg, have signed the petition, which is still a few dozen signatures short.
Net neutrality should not be a partisan issue. Broadband internet is an essential service that is little different than an electric or natural gas utility, and there is little or no competition in much of the nation. Consumers deserve equal access to internet content that is not faster or slower depending on who provides the content, who owns the content or what deal the owner cuts with the internet provider. The House should take up the legislation already approved by the Senate and pass it.