Politicians and professors navigate implications of the end of net neutrality

Tuesday, January 2, 2018 - 11:03pm

The Federal Communications Commission voted on Dec. 14 to end net neutrality, which blocked internet service providers from charging different prices for different users or content. Though the Trump administration believes that the regulatory rollback will help American business, University students and faculty are concerned about its potential effects.

Under the new leadership of FCC Chairman Ajit Pai — appointed by President Donald Trump last January— the commission has begun to advocate for removing regulations which restrict internet companies as part of a broader push for regulatory rollback across various government bodies. The commission voted 3-2 to repeal, with Republican members voting with Pai and Democrats against.

The decision has attracted controversy and criticism from a wide variety of citizens and activist groups. According to a survey conducted by the University of Maryland, 83 percent of Americans disapprove of the FCC’s plans to scrap net neutrality, including 75 percent of Republicans. Sixteen percent approve. The survey briefed respondents on arguments for both sides of the issue.

Many believe the internet should be regulated as a public utility and worry that the repeal of net neutrality will lead to internet service providers charging higher prices for faster internet, a practice that was illegal before the repeal. Politicians on both sides of the aisle have voiced their opposition to the FCC’s vote, including state Rep. Yousef Rabhi, D-Ann Arbor.

“I think it’s one of the worst things that’s happened this year,” Rabhi said. “The biggest issue that needs to be resolved is who’s leading our country, and whether that’s a Republican or a Democrat, that person needs to have these core values that are shared by a vast majority of Americans. And that’s just not the case right now. And obviously, we have an FCC chairman and an FCC majority that is not respectful of the wishes of a majority of Americans.”

According to Rabhi, the FCC vote is indicative of an administration that places the interests of large companies before those of the people. He cited the widespread opposition to the repeal as evidence.

Rabhi worried the prospect of price discrimination for faster internet would greatly advantage wealthy consumers at the expense of poorer ones.

Michael Traugott, an adjunct professor of political science at the University, said he shared this worry, one he denoted as a very real possibility. Though internet providers are under much scrutiny as a result of the repeal and are unlikely to act quickly, he said, a gradual change would be consequential.

“My own view is that it is a negative change because the internet is so central to people’s daily lives in terms of gaining information about the world or about a business or about a research topic that we should be trying to get more people access and maintain a reasonable cost,” Traugott said.

The full extent of the impact on college students nationwide remains to be seen, but Traugott said the University has the power to protect students from high prices by paying for internet service for on campus resisdents, which would at least forestall some potential negative effects of the repeal. Depending on how the situation and markets evolve with the new changes, these students would require specific action to keep their access to high-speed internet.

Rabhi also expressed concern over other changes being implemented by the FCC under Pai, though these issues don’t attract the attention of net neutrality.

“Chairman Pai and the FCC — this is the most controversial of the changes they’ve made, but there is a lot of other stuff that has also been bad,” Rabhi said. “They’ve weakened the antitrust laws, which is damaging for competition in a free market economy. This stuff is also alarming.”

According to Traugott, the repeal could be reversed either through an act of Congress or a challenge in federal court. However, congressional action on the issue is unlikely, so a court case is the most likely eventuality.

However, the path of legal action is ambiguous and potentially difficult to navigate. The repeal was certainly in the FCC’s power as a government regulator. Legal challenges would thus have to focus on the inequalities that may be created as a result of the repeal, and the success of the challenge would largely depend on the strength of petitioners’ arguments.

In advice to concerned citizens, Rabhi said the best way to organize action around this national issue is through voting. Although municipalities can take some small actions to mitigate the effects, changes in representation are the most effective way to combat the repeal.

Traugott emphasized the full impact of the repeal is entirely unknown, and Rabhi agreed government response will depend on the outcomes of the repeal. Much depends on the behavior of telecom companies and voter activity in coming elections.

“We don’t know exactly what’s going to happen with the abolition of net neutrality,” Traugott said. “Since we’ve never functioned in this environment before, we won’t know about that until it happens.”

Engineering junior Daniel Chandross, who studies computer science, said he worries about the potential for finding jobs in smaller startups and corporations due to the end of net neutrality.

“These corporations have not done anything yet. So I think it would be unfair of me to say we have experienced hardship,” he said. “But I think the fact of the matter is, as someone who will be looking for a job soon, it makes it a possibility for it to be harder for small startups or smaller corporations to fight against the larger (corporations) like HBO, Netflix, Google, Facebook or whatever. So as someone who wants to go into the startup field, or another developing field, this funnels students towards larger and more established conglomerates and makes it difficult for smaller ones to attract talent.”