The fight for the future of the internet is about to come to a head.
The Federal Communications Commission is scheduled to vote Thursday on a controversial plan to repeal Obama-era net neutrality protections. The repeal is expected to pass along a party-line vote.
Ajit Pai, the FCC chairman appointed by President Trump, has framed the repeal as getting the government to “stop micromanaging the internet.”
The move is supported by the telecom industry, which claims existing regulations threaten to hamper broadband investments and innovation.
Technology companies and consumer advocacy groups have loudly protested the repeal effort for months, both online and offline, arguing it could spell the end of the internet as we know it.
Here’s what it all means and what’s really at stake.
What exactly is net neutrality?
The net neutrality rules were approved by the FCC in 2015 amid an outpouring of online support. The intention was to keep the internet open and fair.
Under the rules, internet service providers are required to treat all online content the same. They can’t deliberately speed up or slow down traffic from specific websites or apps, nor can they put their own content at an advantage over rivals.
To take a classic example, this means Comcast can’t just choose to slow down a service like Netflix to make its own streaming video service more competitive, nor can it try to squeeze Netflix to pay more money to be part of a so-called internet fast lane.
As Michael Cheah, general counsel at video site Vimeo, previously told CNNMoney: the point of the rules is “allowing consumers to pick the winners and losers and not [having] the cable companies make those decisions for them.”
Why is net neutrality such a big deal?
If there’s one thing that both sides can agree on, it’s that the internet is increasingly central to our lives. Any change to how it’s regulated is a hot button issue. (Remember the uproar over repealing internet privacy protections earlier this year?)
“Everyone uses the internet and everyone uses these tech platforms,” Michelle Connolly, a former FCC official who supports Pai, previously told CNNMoney. “So issues that are coming up right now, people are seeing from a very personal perspective.”
So how will internet providers be regulated if net neutrality is repealed?
The FCC plans to do away with rules barring internet providers from blocking or slowing down access to online content. The FCC would also eliminate a rule barring providers from prioritizing their own content.
In the absence of a firm ban on these actions, providers will be required to publicly disclose any instance of blocking, throttling or paid prioritization. It will then be evaluated based on whether or not the activity is anti-competitive.
As part of this shift, oversight of internet protections will shift from the FCC to the Federal Trade Commission.
Oversight of internet providers would instead shift to the Federal Trade Commission.
Maureen K. Ohlhausen, the acting head of the FTC, said in a statement Monday that the agency is “committed to ensuring that Internet service providers live up to the promises they make to consumers.”
But consumer advocacy groups are less than optimistic.
“Not only is the FCC eliminating basic net neutrality rules, but it’s joining forces with the FTC to say it will only act when a broadband provider is deceiving the public,” Chris Lewis, VP at Public Knowledge, a nonprofit that focuses on the open internet, said in a statement this week. “This gives free reign to broadband providers to block or throttle your broadband service as long as they inform you of it.”
And how will repealing net neutrality affect me?
First, it’s important to say what won’t happen: Billion-dollar services like Netflix are not going to disappear overnight without net neutrality. They have large enough audiences and bank accounts to survive in a changing regulatory landscape.
Instead, net neutrality advocates worry how repeal will impact the next Netflix. Upstart companies may struggle to strike deals with providers and pay up to have their content delivered faster. That could fundamentally alter the future internet landscape.
The repeal could change how customers are billed for services, both for good and bad. T-Mobile, for example, was criticized by net neutrality supporters for effectively making it cheaper for customers to stream videos from Netflix and HBO, putting other video services at a disadvantage.
Without net neutrality, internet providers may pursue similar offers more aggressively, which would likely be viewed as a positive by consumers looking to save money on their streaming media.
Yet, some fear it’s also possible internet providers will one day begin charging customers more to access services like Netflix that are currently included as part of your monthly bill.
So is this a done deal?
Not quite. It’s very like this issue could end up being decided in court, or perhaps even by legislation in Congress.
“Whenever we do anything big and major, people go to court,” a senior FCC official said last month. “I certainly would not rule that out.”