After the Federal Communications Commission announced two weeks ago it intends to repeal Obama-era nondiscrimination internet protections, known as "net neutrality," the internet as we know it is set for a revision.
Drastic changes to internet policy by the FCC are expected in the near future according to professor Johannes Bauer, chairperson of the media and information department at MSU.
“Net neutrality is a set of principles that oblige internet providers not to discriminate by type of information, by type of user, by type of device, or by type of source of information,” Bauer said. “Net neutrality in its current form was introduced in 2015.”
Bauer has been an MSU faculty member since 1990. A native of Austria, he first studied in the U.S. as a guest doctoral student at University of California, Berkeley and Columbia. He holds a doctorate in economics.
In 2005, the FCC announced policy intentions for basic, non-discrimination protections for internet users.
“It had no legal force,” Bauer said. “It was not a law that congress had passed, nor was it a formal regulation.”
By the late 2000’s, internet providers began to take advantage of the loose policy. Providers were slowing down internet services for specific groups. Comcast sued the FCC over a dispute with BitTorrent, a file sharing service. Comcast had slowed down the speed of the platform. A federal appeals court ruled in favor of Comcast, stating the FCC did not have the authority to regulate provider content. This lead the FCC to include net neutrality rules into its Title I framework in 2010.
“The first round tried to implement net neutrality in the Title I framework,” Bauer said “ (It had) weak powers to enforce nondiscrimination.”
Title I framework under the FCC is reserved for information services, which included the internet at the time. "Common carriers" under Title II framework are subject to regulation. Common carriers include telephone companies and other telecommunications services.
In 2015, the FCC finally gained the ability to regulate internet content by reclassifying internet providers as a common carrier. The FCC put nondiscrimination policies in place under Title II, which led to “net neutrality”. Internet providers could not limit internet access to any of it’s clients.
“Many network operators did not like that movement," Bauer said. "They thought it was going back to a time where it was more intrusive. They felt it was not compatible with the open free-wheeling spirit of the internet. At the same time, Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, Twitter, Netflix, were very much in favor of those rules because they felt it would give them a better position in the market to make sure their information would reach to consumers without discrimination.”
Spartan-Net Operations Officer and co-founder Richard Laing does not expect their internet service to be impacted by repealed nondiscrimination polices. Spartan-Net services over 75 communities in East Lansing including DTN Management and Cron Management.
"We don't discriminate against anybody; we work with anyone who wants to work with us," Laing said. "Our position is that we want to give the very best experience to every subscriber that we have, so we're not going to discriminate against the way you want to use our network."
Lang believes the major service providers are more likely to be impacted by a repeal.
"If a service provider, say Comcast, decides that they don’t want AT&T DirecTV content to come across their network, and discriminate against that, to me that’s where it was impacting," Laing said. "Net neutrality is not necessarily going to impact the way that our pricing is. I don’t see it to increase because we are a net neutral network."
With the nondiscrimination policies likely to be repealed, MSU students are worrisome of the prospect of a fragmented internet.
“For student start-ups, I can see that being pushed into slow lanes or providers not privileging your content could be damaging,” experience architecture major Katie Musial said. “Especially if they don’t support what you're doing.”
Musial is a member of MSU Hatch, a start-up incubator for student entrepreneurs, and she works as a web consultant for the group.
“Free speech would decline under these rules,” Musial said. “These companies would be able to say what they want seen and privilege that.”
Bauer expressed similar views on the possibility of providers limiting information flow.
“Unless you have these nondiscrimination protections in place in one form or another, it might well be that the network access providers become gatekeepers,” Bauer said. “They will organize information for you.”
“I feel like the internet should be a free platform for everybody,” computer science junior Austin Roberts said. “I don’t think the ISPs should be the ones. It’d be like if DTE restricts your energy for certain appliances.”
There could likely be many changes to FCC internet regulations in the years to come. FCC commissioners are appointed by the president with approval by the Senate and serve five year terms.
“If network operators are able to offer those special services in a less regulated way I think actually we would indeed see new types of innovation, but the current proposal does not really do this," Bauer said. "The current proposal eliminates all protections. The best option in my view would be kind of like a middle, third approach. Where you keep some of the nondiscrimination protections in place, but do it without differentiation. I would call this weak network neutrality.”
Bauer expects internet service to be similar to a current cable subscription. Access to certain sites would be limited until a more expensive service is purchased.
“They might sell you a package and say, ‘Okay, you get some base level internet access, and then for three dollars a month more you get access to search services, another three dollars a month for music service’,” Bauer said. “There is a fear among many people that we will get a more fragmented information communication environment.”
Bauer does not expect this drastic of a change to happen without a challenge.
“Most likely it will be challenged in the courts,” Bauer said. “It is unlikely that this will fly uncontested.”
Editor's note: a previous version of this story misspelled Richard Laing's name. It has since been updated.