To understand net neutrality, the internet can be likened to a highway. All cars are welcome and must abide by the same speed limit. But if there’s an express lane, you can pay a toll to get to your destination faster.
The Federal Communications Commission is expected to repeal net neutrality Thursday. It would potentially allow companies — for example, like Hulu — to pay internet providers a little extra, like a toll, so their website and videos download faster than their competitors.
Peter Swire is a professor of law and ethics at the Georgia Tech Scheller College of Business and an associate director of the Institute for Information Security and Privacy.
“Under net neutrality, all the different websites get downloaded to consumers the same way. If you take away net neutrality, it gives the internet service providers a chance to decide what they’re going to let through and what they’re not going to let through, so there’s a possibility of censorship,” Swire said. “It’s hard to see why that’s in the business interest of the internet providers, but it’s a concern people express.”
Swire said repealing net neutrality would allow internet providers to charge companies different rates and find a more profitable business model.
“The internet providers have become worried that they’re just going to be boring commodity service providers, they’re just going to connect the pipe from the network to people’s homes and that won’t lead to particularly high profits. So they’ve been looking for new ways to make money,” Swire said. “None of the internet service providers are close to bankruptcy. They see big internet companies, like Google and Facebook, taking most of the advertising and revenue from online activities, and they’d like to be able to compete more effectively.”
About 70 internet activists gathered Thursday along Peachtree Road in front of a Verizon store to protest the repeal of net neutrality. Jack Gruendler of East Atlanta was among the protesters.
“It’s not just they’re going to make you pay more,” Gruendler said. “The FCC wants to allow internet providers to literally censor the internet, stifle messages they don’t like and basically destroy free speech on the internet. It’s the most important issue going on today.”
Gruendler said internet providers could decide to block websites or make some of them so slow they would be nearly impossible to access.
The big internet providers like Verizon, Comcast and AT&T said they’re not looking to censor or slow down content, but protesters have said they don’t trust the internet providers to keep their promises. Google Fiber said it had no comment.
The FCC said with the repeal, internet providers “will be required to disclose blocking, throttling, affiliated prioritization, paid prioritization, congestion management practices, application-specific behavior and device attachment rules, if any.”
Two of the five FCC commissioners said they will vote against Chairman Ajit Pai and the majority to keep net neutrality.
“As I traveled through Atlanta and go off of the highways, there are too many places where people have suffered because there is chronic redlining that goes on in certain communities. The FCC could be a conduit or a backstop to ensure that does not happen as much,” Clyburn said. “But if we have a hands-off approach, then those communities do not have the infrastructure, where the investment is not naturally flowing, particularly in some of the more rural areas of Georgia, then it’s going to be problematic.”
Clyburn said she wants more regulation to ensure equal access. She said she’s not convinced repealing net neutrality would incentivize companies to expand broadband access to rural areas.
“Part of the idea of being regulated as monopoly utility companies is that internet providers are required to serve the entire area where they are,” said Gruendler of East Atlanta. “If this passes, the sky’s the limit. Maybe even that will change. Maybe Comcast and AT&T will no longer have to offer affordable internet service to southwest Atlanta. Maybe they’ll no longer have to build out the fiber to make it so you can get the same internet whether you’re in Buckhead or on the poor side of town. And heaven help you if you’re rural, you’re just screwed.”
But Mercer University business professor Antonio Saravia said he supports the FCC’s move.
He said companies can make more money and investments without the net neutrality rule.
“While it may hurt small businesses or families the next year or so, in the long run, it may be better for the industries in place,” Saravia said. “In these highly technological industries, typically these regulations do not keep up with the technological developments. With less regulation, industries tend to thrive, and we, in the long run, see more products, more diversity, better prices.”
Georgia Tech professor Swire said whether investments will be made, in rural areas for example, is a point of contention.
“For the past 20 years, the internet service providers have said they’ll make more investments if they’re more profitable, and critics have claimed that the internet service providers take the profits and don’t put in the new investments,” Swire said.