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Net Neutrality is Dead: Now What?

As expected, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted along party lines to strip the internet of its designation as a public utility, repealing the rules of “net neutrality.” There are plenty of other places that you can read all about it, from how:

  • Only 16% of Americans wanted a change to the net neutrality rules; to how
  • Congressmen took a collective $101 million in lobbying from internet service providers (ISPs) to overturn net neutrality protections; to how
  • FCC head Ajit Pai posted an awkward video demonstrating “what you can still do” online after the death of net neutrality (the video involved copyright infringement).

But you came here to learn how the end of the net neutrality rules will impact your law firm’s online marketing efforts.

Here’s what you need to know.

What Will Happen Tomorrow: Nothing

When the FCC stripped the internet of its Title II classification under the Communications Act, the regulations that apply to public utilities no longer applied to the internet. It allows ISPs – like Verizon, Comcast, and Time Warner – to base business decisions about the internet content that they provide on who the consumer is, who the business is, and what content that they are sharing. Importantly, this allows ISPs to do three things:

  1. Block consumers from accessing certain websites or apps that the ISP doesn’t like, such as sites that compete with the ISP;
  2. Throttle the speeds of some kinds of internet content; and
  3. Prioritize content from certain business over others, for a price.

However, none of these now legal business practices will happen overnight. ISPs, while they have been pushing for these regulatory rollbacks for years, now, are still deciding how to best pursue their interests after the repeal of net neutrality.

With that said, though, it’s almost a certainty that ISPs will utilize all of the freedom that the FCC has given them. They’ve already stripped their websites of any promise they made to keep the internet fair and neutral, and they’ve had a long history of circumventing net neutrality rules or guidelines.

Right now, it can be helpful to think of ISPs as an attack dog, and the FCC as the dog’s owner. The dog has a history of mauling people, and has been straining at the leash for days. Mr. Pai and the FCC just took the leash off.

Net neutrality rollback is like unleashing an attack dog

In this metaphor, the next couple of weeks are represented by the second that passes by before the dog bolts after someone. In the meantime, in the background, Mr. Pai says that the best way to keep the dog under control is to “examine on a case by case basis any situations in which we believe there is any competitive conduct.”

What Will Probably Happen in the Coming Months: Litigation

States are already lining up to take the FCC to court to preserve net neutrality rules.

Large internet companies from Amazon to Netflix to Google to Facebook might join shortly.

In the meantime, we would expect ISPs to stay quiet. They don’t want to use all of their newfound powers and make it clear what they will be capable of now that they are off the leash of net neutrality.

What the Future Holds: Uncertainty

There are a lot of ways that this could unfold:

  • Congress could codify net neutrality protections;
  • Courts could find the FCC’s rule change is “arbitrary and capricious,” as it reverses a rule made just two years ago and substantially mischaracterizes how the internet works; or
  • ISPs could choose not to use their new powers out of fear of new competition.

The most likely scenario, however, is that ISPs slowly use their broadband capital to squash competition and maximize profit. The process will be gradual, though, so internet users find themselves increasingly inconvenienced, rather than suddenly slapped with new restrictions and price hikes. However, the exact details of the changes will depend on the ISP. We’re likely to see drastically different internet structures, depending on who is the dominant ISP in your law firm’s area. Watching which businesses partner with which ISPs can be worthwhile use of time: It’ll provide a solid clue as to who will be getting prioritized treatment on the web.