UPDATE: (Dec. 14, 2017) – The FCC voted to repeal sweeping net neutrality rules.
This move would allow giant U.S. cable and telecom companies to block or throttle websites and favour their own services if they wish, according to Laura Tribe, the executive director of the advocacy group, Open Media.
Here in Canada, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) has previously said it will strengthen its commitment to net neutrality.
“It’s encouraging that the CRTC thinks net neutrality is important,” Tribe said. “But the U.S. decision could set a precedent and then it could come to Canada.”
“This would break the internet as we know it,” she said.
But what exactly is net neutrality and how could the change in the U.S. affect Canadians?
WATCH: Why you should care about net neutrality
Net neutrality explained
Under net neutrality, internet providers are supposed to treat all content equally.
So if an internet service provider (ISP) owns the content, it cannot favour its own users, according to tech expert Marc Saltzman.
“It should not block access to a competing video streaming service and grant faster speeds to a service that they own,” Saltzman said.
This is pretty much how the internet has worked since its creation. But regulators, consumers and internet companies (like Google and Netflix) started to become concerned what ISPs could do with their power — as they are the pathway to the internet.
WATCH: FCC upholds net neutrality so internet providers can’t play favourites
Net neutrality was put in place in 2015 by former U.S. president Barack Obama, with the goal of treating internet service providers, like At&T, Comcast and Verizon like public utilities.
The policy made sure cable and phone companies could not manipulate traffic and give ISPs even more power to block or slow down rival offerings.
LISTEN: Internet law expert Michael Geist talks net neutrality with AM640’s Tasha Kheiriddin
But a repeal of net neutrality opens the ability for ISPs to charge a company like Netflix for a faster path to its customers, according to Tribe.
For example, if Comcast created a television series that competed with a Netflix show, there may be an incentive for Comcast to slow down a customer’s internet connection when watching Netflix
Why is the FCC planning to get rid of it?
On Tuesday, FCC chairman Ajit Pai, a Republican appointed by U.S. President Donald Trump, said the regulatory agency will vote at a Dec. 14 meeting on the plan to rescind the so-called net neutrality rules.
The FCC said the rules discourage investments that could provide even better and faster online access.
By getting rid of net neutrality, the FCC said it will force ISPs to be transparent about their services and management policies.
“Under my proposal, the federal government will stop micromanaging the internet,” Pai said in a statement.
AT&T executive vice-president Joan Marsh said new rules requiring ISPs to disclose their management practices will keep them honest.
WATCH: Crackdown on internet freedom under Trump administration?
“Any ISP that is so foolish as to seek to engage in gatekeeping will be quickly and decisively called out,” she said in a statement.
Although the FCC’s two Democrats said they will oppose the proposal, the repeal is likely to prevail as Republicans dominate 3-2. The vote for net neutrality in 2015 was also along party lines, but Democrats dominated then.
Will this move affect Canada?
In April, the CRTC released a statement saying it was strengthening its commitment to net neutrality and internet service providers should treat data traffic equally to foster consumer choice, innovation and the free exchange of ideas.
But he said there is no doubt Canadians will notice the FCC’s roll-back on net neutrality.
This is because the internet does not exist in a bubble and a lot of Canada’s content gets routed through the U.S., Tribe said.
WATCH: Justin Trudeau says he will ‘defend’ net neutrality
“A lot of our favourite sites and services are located in the U.S. and Canadian startups rely on net neutrality to get off the ground and thrive internationally,” she said.
For example, if you’re a small tech company hoping to get off the ground you can make a website that competes with other companies. It levels the playing field, she said. But if you take net neutrality away it’s harder for the independent tech company to compete.
WATCH: CRTC declares broadband Internet access a basic service across Canada
“Internet service providers could actually block your website or have people pay to unlock it,” she said.
Tribe said Open Media will continue fighting to keep net neutrality in Canada. But with the current NAFTA negotiations, she said there may be enormous pressure to roll back net neutrality in Canada.
Net neutrality in other countries
Other countries, such as Portugal have weaker net neutrality laws, meaning ISPs can charge extra for websites.
In Portugal, mobile carrier MEO offers added “Smart Net” packages. For an extra C$7.49 a month, users can access 10GB of data exclusively for YouTube, Netflix, Periscope and Twitch. Another social package offers users access to apps like Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat for an extra $7.49 a month.
In New Zealand, the telecommunication company Vodafone, offers users a social pass for websites like Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and Twitter. A user usually has a monthly cap on these websites, but for an extra $8.72 a month, users in New Zealand can have unlimited access.
This practice, called “differential pricing,” is not allowed in Canada.
Day of action
Many consumer advocacy groups and companies like Reddit, Netflix, Twitter and Yelp have fought back on the repeal. There was a “day of action” set up on July 12 that tried to shed light on the importance of net neutrality.
Websites across the internet displayed a prominent alert on their homepage showing what the internet would look like without net neutrality — such as using a “spinning wheel of death”, “blocked”, and “upgrade” alert modals.
Users were also encouraged to send a letter to the FCC and U.S. Congress in support of net neutrality.