Internet users nationwide have their cords in a bundle over an impending repeal of net neutrality — the longstanding principle that internet service providers cannot charge for or slow down certain websites.
While the consumer protections of net neutrality appear likely to megabyte the dust, the Bay Area might manage to keep its net neutrality, thanks to state legislation, a proposed city-run internet network here in San Francisco, or a few independent local internet providers who promise to keep the current system in effect.
The Federal Communications Commission, led by Trump appointee and former Verizon corporate lobbyist Ajit Pai, has the votes lined up to repeal net neutrality. The top four internet service providers in the U.S. — AT&T, Comcast, Charter, and Verizon — have all campaigned hard in favor of these new rules that would let them limit, block, or charge extra for the websites of their choice.
The new rules would allow Verizon (which just purchased Yahoo) to block Google and Gmail, forcing people to use the crappy and easily-hacked Yahoo search and email services instead.
Or consider Comcast, whose 25 million subscribers — 27 percent of all U.S. internet users — make them the nation’s top internet provider. The company insisted in a statement that “Comcast’s commitment to our customers remains the same: We do not and will not block, throttle, or discriminate against lawful content.”
But on Tuesday, Comcast abandoned its previous promise that it would not implement more expensive “fast lanes” for higher-bandwidth sites like Netflix and YouTube.
In the midst of all of this, state Sen. Scott Wiener vowed to propose a law that would keep net neutrality in effect in California, eliminating the possibility of big telecom companies charging more money for the same services they’re providing now.
“If FCC ends #NetNeutrality nationally, we should adopt net neutrality in California,” Wiener tweeted on Nov. 27. “I’m exploring legislation to do so. The FCC claims it has the power to overrule state net neutrality laws. I don’t agree. California needs to protect open internet access.”
However, the airwaves and internet the FCC regulates are considered “interstate commerce” because those airwaves cross over state lines. While many states and localities are likely to join California in pushing legislation to keep net neutrality in effect, there is plenty of legal precedent that a federal commission like the FCC can override individual state and local laws.
Regardless, if the big telecom companies do successfully throttle our internet access, there are other options. The Bay Area is home to several smaller providers, like Monkeybrains and Sonic, and the latter tells SF Weekly that net neutrality will remain in effect for their customers.
“Regardless of the FCC’s decision, we are committed to operating our network net-neutral,” Sonic founder and CEO Dane Jasper says. He also insisted that Sonic would not sell its customers’ browser histories, which internet providers can now do thanks to new legislation.
“We fundamentally believe that a healthy internet is dependent on the trust of its users,” Jasper says. “Monitoring and selling browsing history strips away already-eroding trust. A competitive market is necessary for customers to have the best service at an affordable price. Instead of favoring the consumer, the FCC’s plan will only serve to put more power in the hands of internet service incumbents, stunting innovation and growth.”
At the same time this battle is being waged, San Francisco proposed its own citywide fiber network to provide high-speed internet access to all local residents. That effort is spearheaded by Sup. Mark Farrell, who is on record as a staunch opponent of repealing net neutrality.
A representative from Farrell’s office tells SF Weekly that the rollback of net neutrality would not stop this project, though the proposed city-owned network has not rendered a decision on whether to adhere to net neutrality.
Additionally, San Francisco already has the free and open #SFWiFi network operating in 32 parks, plazas, and open spaces across town. There are no plans to change any component of that network.
So who knows, maybe some San Franciscans who don’t want to pay extra for Netflix will just sit in Dolores Park and stream movies on their phone to avoid paying the extra bandwidth fees. But at the local level, the state level, and among our upstart smaller internet service providers, there is a strong desire to preserve the current free and open system of net neutrality.
The FCC will vote on repealing net neutrality on Dec 14. And with Republicans holding three of the five votes, repeal is likely to pass.