Ajit Pai, the former Verizon employee and current Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has finally carried out his second assault on internet freedom in the USA, and delivered for his former employees, as the FCC finally voted to repeal US Net Neutrality laws.
As we reported earlier this year, Pai has targeted net neutrality ever since his appointment as FCC Chair following the election of President Donald Trump. His proposals have prompted a storm of criticism from both the general public and technology experts.
But despite the opposition of just about everyone who understands the issue, Pai has stuck to his ideological guns and just last week went out on a tour of (friendly) media outlets to argue his case once more. And with the Republicans holding a majority of three to two on the FCC, Pai has inevitably got his way as the vote on Wednesday followed party lines.
The end of Title II
So, what exactly have the FCC voted to do? Well, they have decided, in their wisdom, to repeal the Open Internet Order of 2010 and the 2015 Title II Order.
The Open Internet Order is regulation which requires ISPs to treat all internet traffic in “roughly the same way” and not favour traffic to some sites and services over others.
The Title II order reclassified Internet Service Providers as common carriers, which prevents them from making “any unjust or unreasonable discrimination in charges, practices, classifications, regulations, facilities, or services.”
By repealing the two orders, US-based internet service providers will now have free reign to throttle and block websites as they see fit. The most likely scenario is that big established websites will be able to pay ISPs for a faster service, while smaller businesses and start-ups will be hit.
What happens now?
Ajit Pai’s order which repeals net neutrality is already in the public domain and there are no shortage of legal challenges to it already being lined up. It is quite common for FCC orders to be taken through the courts and successful ones are frankly few and far between.
It is also not clear at this stage what grounds there are for a legal challenge. It has been suggested that campaign groups might try to paint Pai’s move as arbitrary and capricious.
There were also a number of irregularities in the process, such as manipulation during the comment period and an ongoing probe by New York’s state attorney general, which they could lean on.
If such a challenge proves successful, then Pai’s order will be reversed and the net neutrality situation in the US will return to where it was at the start of this week. But for now, the order is effective and ISPs are now free to manipulate internet connections as they see fit.
The effect of Pai’s net neutrality reversal
The first steps they are likely to take is to block or throttle rivals to services they already own. Comcast is the owner of NBCUniversal, Verizon possesses Yahoo and AOL, while AT&T is in the process of trying to acquire Time Warner.
Any US citizen who uses one of the ISPs and also uses a rival to one of those services can now expect their service to deteriorate pretty quickly. If they are unhappy at this, they will now be able to complain to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). But they are relatively toothless and will be able to do little even if they find that an illegal act has occurred.
It is possible that the US Congress could act to block Pai’s order too. The Congressional Review Act means that if both houses pass a resolution of disapproval within 60-days, then it would be overturned. The Republican Party used this to block online privacy provisions passed by the Democrat-controlled FCC under President Obama.
There have been cross-party concerns about Pai’s proposals and some congressional senators, notably Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) and Rep. Mike Doyle (D-PA), have indicated they plan to introduce such a resolution.
Given the huge public opposition to Pai’s changes, it is possible that this avenue could work, but with both the US Senate and Congress controlled by the Republican Party, there are no guarantees.
A VPN can render the changes null and void
All of which leaves US internet users high and dry for now. Unless, of course, they make use of a VPN. By signing up for a VPN such as IPVanish and ExpressVPN, all of their online data will be encrypted and therefore invisible to their ISP.
This makes it impossible for an ISP to discriminate against different websites they are visiting and so renders the likely impact of the rollback of net neutrality null and void.
It is possible that in time, ISPs could act against all VPN providers. But that is unlikely to be their top priority and if all other avenues fail, it is to be hoped that once a Democrat, or a reasonable Republican, is back in the White House, net neutrality can be restored once more.