June 11 marked a milestone for internet users in the U.S. as the first official day that the Federal Communications Commission would no longer recognize rules related to enforcing net neutrality. What that means exactly for businesses that rely on unified communications services and even the average internet user, however, may be complicated.
"The debate over net neutrality is likely to continue despite the FCC's repeal."
The fight surrounding net neutrality in the U.S. has now spanned several years of very public debate between consumers, various business interests, elected officials and everyone in between. By now, most businesses are probably aware of the basic principles behind net neutrality, but would be forgiven if they feel as though the official appeal of FCC net neutrality regulations is a little confounding. Essentially, this latest development marks what may be the end of the tumultuous legal battle for now, but the ultimate impact felt by internet users could vary widely.
In brief, the timeline of relevant events starts in 2015 with the enactment by the FCC of rules designed to enshrine the concept of net neutrality in federal law. Broadly defined, net neutrality is the concept that all data transmitted over the internet should be treated the same regardless of who is transmitting or receiving it, what is being transmitted or any host of other factors. Under Title II of the Communications Act, the FCC determined it had the ability to enforce net neutrality among U.S. telecommunications providers by disallowing three key practices:
- Blocking: Internet service providers would not be allowed to discriminate against content being transferred over its networks by blocking websites or applications, assuming that content was legally permissible.
- Throttling: ISPs would not be permitted to "throttle," or slow down, network traffic from certain users or against certain content.
- Paid prioritization: The FCC would not allow ISPs to maintain "fast lanes" for users who paid a premium.
Reversal on net neutrality policy
As of 2015, these rules were in place according to the FCC's authority to enforce them. But priorities reversed in 2017 with the election of a new president and his appointment of a new FCC chair. The effort to roll back net neutrality rules was undertaken soon after and succeeded relatively quickly. Therefore, as of June 11 ISPs could, in theory, engage in the actions listed above without threat of regulatory interference from the federal government.
The implications of a lack of net neutrality enforcement are numerous. Some have argued that the new reality could see the introduction of internet fast lanes that only wealthy companies and individuals can afford. That would leave small businesses and other consumers with slower connections or locked out of certain websites. Theoretically, it could also spell trouble for remote workers who rely on broad access to any website from any network.
However, even if these consequences become real, many U.S. internet users may still enjoy a net-neutral experience regardless. That's because, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 29 states had introduced or passed laws mandating net neutrality for all users in those states. Some governors, including those in New York and Montana, have issued executive orders requiring the enforcement of net neutrality.
By the time the rules officially expired June 11, the internet was still essentially neutral to users within the U.S. In its argument to repeal the rules, the FCC claimed that it was unnecessary to legislate against concerns that had not yet been tested in reality. It remains to be seen whether this will remain true in the wake of the repeal of these rules.