Obama’s (yet) unabated 2014 plan to defend net neutrality is considered a victory for digital rights. Necessary was the idea that, instead of a luxury, the internet ought to be considered a public utility.
The former president argued that “the internet [had] become an essential part of everyday communication and everyday life”. It was imperative, for instance, that internet providers be forbidden from deciding “which online stores [a user] can shop at, or which streaming services [they] can use”.
A ruling on the plan eventually came into force in June 2015 and restricted telecommunications providers from lowering or increasing the price of or otherwise censoring access to specific websites or web services.
However, under Trump, these rulings may not last.
Ajit Pai, Trump’s newly appointed Chairman of the FCC, advocated stongly against Obama’s proposal — albeit unsuccessfully. Moreover, the current makeup of FCC commissioners who rule on these issues is now majority Republican. The election of Donald Trump has, therefore, caused the future of net neutrality to become nebulous.
Even more unclear is what real-world effects the loosening of net-neutrality laws will have on the makeup of the internet. Not to mention, it is especially concerning for startups and small businesses who may have to suffer pay-to-play restrictions from internet service providers looking to prioritize traffic from competing websites and services.
Ajit Pai is a Harvard-educated lawyer born of Indian immigrants and is the first Indian-American to become the Chairman of the FCC. In the late nineties, he began his career auditing telecommunications companies for antitrust violations for the United States Department of Justice — A post which Pai left in 2001 to join Verizon. After a period of holding private and public sector roles, Pai was eventually sworn in as an FCC commissioner under Obama in 2012. As FCC commissioner, Pai was outspoken on numerous occasions about his negative stance towards net-neutrality.
Most notably, Pai has criticized Obama’s recent push to protect Net Neutrality. The Title II reclassification, he argued, was an over-regulation of the internet. According to Pai, regulating internet services under Title II would, instead, reduce competition since it would levy extra taxes and fees on smaller, already cash-strapped ISPs.
In another instance, he argued that Obama’s net neutrality regulations would hinder the ability of ISPs to offer promotional service plans such as T-Mobile’s Music Freedom program — a clear violation of net neutrality. Moreover, Pai does not provide any details on how this program would be fair to the owners of other websites and competing services whose traffic is still being metered at normal mobile rates.
Surprisingly, in late 2014, Pai criticized Netflix for allegedly paying ISPs to host Netflix content directly, thereby creating an unfair “fast-lane” for Netflix content at the “expense of its competitors”. Pai argued that this violated net-neutrality standards and, furthermore, was inconsistent with Netflix’s own stance against net-neutrality.
That being said, while Ajit Pai is against net neutrality, net neutrality policy change does not appear to be his main area of focus. According to his official bio, he is first-and-foremost concerned with the proliferation of high speed internet in rural areas. For, according to Pai, the internet has “leveled the playing field” and led to the “democratization of entrepreneurship”. He notes, however, that this has not yet been a reality for many rural Americans who still suffer low internet speeds and bandwidth limits.
In his agenda, Pai also states his plan to offer R&D tax credits and long-term capital gains exemptions to startups as well as additional tax credits for startups situated in low-income areas of the United States.
However, bearing in mind the current President’s trend of issuing executive orders, the real death knell of net neutrality may not come from the FCC at all.
Donald Trump hasn’t weighed much on the issue of net neutrality, nor has he demonstrated a true graps of the concept. The only utterance concerning his stance on it comes from a tweet made from his account back in 2014.
While the Tweet suggests that Trump is against the abolishment of net neutrality, he doesn’t appear to know what it really is. As such, we shouldn’t take it as any form of official statement, let alone a reassurance that net neutrality will be protected under Trump. And given the dearth of actual planning demonstrated by any of Trump’s initiatives, it is hard to imagine what the abolishment of net neutrality would look like or what effects it would have.
All this, of course, is especially concerning for those who make their livelihoods off of the internet (and those with the words “SEO” or “Inbound Marketer” in their job title). It is unclear what plans that, if any even exist, Ajit Pai and Donald Trump have for the neutrality of the internet in the United States.
However, if Trump decides to issue such an executive order, suddenly allowing ISPs to prioritize traffic, it is unlikely that the internet would turn in on itself overnight. Instead, it is likely that more ISPs will adopt promotions similar to T-Mobile’s Music Freedom and Videotron in Quebec’s Unlimited Music. That is, rather than lower existing bandwidth limits or censoring sites completely, use existing limits to offer promotions on prioritized websites or services.
Not to mention, net neutral ISPs such as Google Fiber could put competitive pressure on larger ISPs to maintain net neutral service. At the very least, if FCC Chairman Ajit Pai wants to maintain, as he puts it, the “democratization of entrepreneurship” by way of the internet, preserving net neutrality will be unavoidable.