With internet neutrality rules changing, door opens for providers to raise rates

KAREN VIBERT-KENNEDY/Sun-Gazette As technology manager at the James V. Brown Library, Doug Harkness is concerned about the potential impact the rollback on net neutrality could have on the public library system and the people who use it everyday. Above, Harkness stands in the tween and teen space in the library's Welch Family Wing.

A recent federal vote chopping laws that ensured equal internet access opened a door that some say could change the way people use the internet and, more likely, how much they will spend to do it.

The Federal Communications Committee voted to topple net neutrality on Dec. 14. Since then, politicians, officials and even some local technology experts, including those at the James V. Brown Library, have spoken against the move. A group of attorneys general all over the country have even gone as far as to file a lawsuit deeming the rollbacks illegal.

Why? Because the vote could have impacts on everyone and anyone who streams videos, checks email, logs into Facebook or uses a search engine.

What is net neutrality?

Net neutrality is the principle that consumers and citizens should be free to access the internet content and services they want in a way that isn’t regulated by companies running them to manipulate prices, according to the American Library Association.

Stripped bare, it’s the idea that internet providers treat all web traffic and activity equally without offering pathways that are faster and more expensive.

Net neutrality ensures that those in traditional businesses, citizens, schools, libraries and non-profit organizations have the same quality of access.

The worry now that net neutrality rules were undermined is that internet service providers are cleared to charge certain people and certain groups more to access what they want to access.

Those that supported the recent rollbacks argue that net neutrality is an unnecessary regulation that will hurt competition and slow the development of technology, according to the American Library Association.

A brief history

The term net neutrality was first coined on the heels of the internet exploding commercially in 2003, according to a timeline published by publicknowledge.org.

After nearly a decade of back and forth between cable companies and the government to find a medium range of regulations, the FCC released a new proposal in May of 2014. That proposal allowed “fast” and “slow” lanes — lanes that are deliberately manipulated based solely on cost.

A month later, a bill was introduced to ban internet fast lanes.

In February of 2015, Tom Wheeler, then chairmen of the FCC, endorsed strong open internet rules paving the way for the FCC to pass net neutrality rules later that same month, according to the timeline.

In March of 2015, the FCC officially issued the Open Internet Order banning fast lanes, the blocking of services and the throttling of quality internet to make it slower for those who don’t pay for the faster lanes, according to publicknowledge.org

Internet service providers were quick to act. Lawsuits to overturn the order began and AT&T and other carriers petitioned the FCC to temporarily stop the order. In June of 2016, the FCC denied their petition.

Net neutrality remained protected until the new FCC chairman Ajit Pai publicly confirmed his plans to roll back its rules this past April.

In December, the FCC voted to dismantle those rules.

Potential impacts

That federal decision could affect everyone using the internet and the public’s access to knowledge, education and connection.

“The libraries, schools, the public … all could feel this in the same way,” said Doug Harkness, technology manager at the James V. Brown Library.

For the public, that could mean paying higher fees for their everyday internet activities separately.

Although any change to the way the internet service providers operate is hypothetical this early on, they could have some far reaching impacts aside from higher costs, Harkness said.

“If the ISPs (internet service providers) are free to shape internet traffic anyway they want, that could be a scary thing,” Harkness said. “To me, in an extreme case, that could even mean changing the way we read news. As it stands now, there are so many specific viewpoints on any given topic. But if the ISP is a conservative or liberal, they can say, ‘We don’t want people reading about this,’ so they can start blocking sources.”

‘Until it’s too late’

The James V. Brown Library has had 179,062 people walk through its doors in 2017 alone, Barbara McGary, executive director of the library, said. Of those, 121,111 library patrons used the public computers and wireless access.

“People in our community need public access computers,” McGary said. “And even if they have a cell phone, they cannot afford the $100 a month wireless access in their homes.”

Using the library’s computers, those people searched for information about news, events around the area and consumer health. They used it to check email and social media accounts, explore interests and complete applications from everything to summer camps and jobs to continuing education.

“The cost to have decent services would go up (for the library),” Harkness said. “And we only have so much money. We are the hub to stay connected to the world for a lot of people.”

The library already spends a hefty fee for Comcast fiber, and Harkness said he isn’t sure what would have to be done to pay a rising price.

“People keep saying the internet service providers won’t change anything, but why do they want the ability to if they don’t plan to,” Harkness asked. “I fear they won’t have to tell the public of any real changes they make and people won’t understand this issue until it’s too late.”

Legal action

A coalition of 22 attorneys general have filed a lawsuit to stop what they said is the illegal rollback of net neutrality. Pennsylvania’s Attorney General Josh Shapiro announced that he joined in on the lawsuit on Jan. 16.

“The vote by the Federal Communications Commission last month to gut net neutrality threatens to end the internet as we know it,” Shapiro said at the time. “The FCC’s action undermines free speech and is bad for consumers and business – especially startups and small businesses. I filed this lawsuit with my colleagues to stop this rollback from being implemented.”

The lawsuit argues that under the Administrative Procedure Act, the FCC cannot make “arbitrary” changes to existing policy. Net neutrality is an existing policy.

The FCC’s vote sprouted serious controversy because over two million fraudulent comments were found to have influenced its decision. An estimated 100,000 of them were from Pennsylvanians, Shapiro said.

“The theft of someone’s voice in our democracy cannot stand, and we must get to the bottom of this massive identity theft,” Shapiro said. “That is a compelling reason the FCC should not press forward with its action to rollback net neutrality rules.”

The total repeal of net neutrality would have dire consequences for consumers and businesses in Pennsylvania and across the country that rely on a free and open internet, according to a release announcing the lawsuit.

The release summarized the consequences the rollbacks could have on every citizen: “It would allow internet service providers to block certain content, charge consumers more to access certain sites and throttle or slow the quality of content from content providers that don’t pay more.”