The Federal Communications Commission’s repeal of net neutrality rules last December, which had required internet providers to offer equal access to all web content,  went into effect yesterday. ‘Net neutrality’ is the principle that all internet traffic should be provided to all consumers with the same quality and same speed, regardless of whether an internet service provider has a financial interest in promoting one website over another.

The rules essentially prevented service providers from censoring content online, or from charging additional fees for better services-  like higher speeds or for access to certain parts of the internet- such as to social media sites.

While several states have taken steps to reimpose the rules on a local level, the repeal was a big win for the F.C.C.’s, whose chairperson has long opposed the regulations, saying they impede innovation. Supporters of the repeal have argued that the repeal is actually beneficial for consumers because it restores the authority of the F.T.C over internet service providers.

Many consumers, activist groups and some law-makers conversely are worried that the digital economy that the US has built will be negatively impacted by the rollback because repeal will allow anticompetitive acts and unfair or deceptive practices, and that these will go largely unchecked. Consumer rights and even a range of human rights protected by the constitution and international law, however, could be threatened. We look in more detail at what the possible impacts will be.

The rules that have been repealed used to prohibit the following practices:

BLOCKING Internet service providers could not discriminate against any lawful content by blocking websites or apps.

THROTTLING Service providers could not slow the transmission of data because of the nature of the content, as long as it was legal.

PAID PRIORITIZATION Service providers could not create an internet fast lane for companies and consumers who paid premiums, and a slow lane for those who didn’t.

E-commerce start-ups are also worried that practices of paid prioritization by ISPs, they could end up on the losing end with their websites and services loading more slowly than those run by internet giants. Remote workers of all kinds, including freelancers and franchisees in the  gig economy, could similarly face higher costs to do their jobs from home.A major concern is that consumers could suffer from “pay to play” deals. Without rules that prohibit paid prioritization of content and sites, a fast lane could be occupied by big internet and media companies, wealthier households and large businesses, while everyone else would be left in the slow lane.

At a time when developing nations such as India and Nigeria are being encouraged to promote freedom on the internet and are taking the approach of opening the net and trying to close gaps in access between different groups of consumers, the United States- with the ostensible objective of encouraging competition – is taking an approach which puts the expansion of large legacy companies ahead of consumer and human rights.

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