What the End of Net Neutrality Means for the Future of Online Freedom of Speech

On Thursday, the U.S. government may gut “net neutrality”: the rules that prohibit Internet Service Providers (ISPs) from interfering with what you can see on the Internet. Here’s just some of what might happen, if the Federal Communications Commission guts “net neutrality” as its chair has threatened: what you see online might be determined by whether your ISP approves of the political opinions expressed; ISPs will be able to deliver some content at high speeds and other content (from those who cannot pay as much) at unusably slow speeds, and most important, you likely won’t know when service providers choose to censor information. These claims may sound outlandish, but these things have already happened in times and places where Internet users were not protected against them.

The ending of net neutrality could also increase Dangerous Speech online. When ISPs can control access to information and limit the number or diversity of sources of content, inflammatory content can become dangerous, and speech that is already dangerous can become more so.

Alarmed, internet users and platforms have been protesting: outside the offices of companies like Verizon, at Congressional offices, and even at the entry to the FCC’s annual dinner. There’s also an online protest planned for December 12th, two days before the FCC’s vote. Websites ranging from Reddit to Etsy will alter their sites to call attention to the impending vote and direct users to call their Congressional representatives and ask them to pressure the FCC to keep the current net neutrality rules.

Under those, ISPs like Comcast, Verizon, and AT&T must deliver all internet content equitably. They cannot discriminate (by charging companies or users different fees or changing download speeds) based on aspects such as source of content, fees paid by content providers, or user profiles. The rules regulate ISPs the same way the government has regulated telephone networks for many decades.

ISPs have poured hundreds of millions of lobbying dollars into persuading the FCC to change these rules, which impose constraints that limit profits. For instance, they prevent ISPs from making lucrative “sweetheart” deals with specific platforms to prioritize their content over their competition. The FCC has also received 22 million comments, but many of those have been, uh, peculiar. According to Wired magazine, about one million came from Pornhub.com email addresses, more than half are associated with temporary or duplicate email addresses, and 7,000 were respectfully submitted by “The Internet.”

The FCC’s five commissioners – led by Ajit Pai, a former lawyer for Verizon, one of the largest ISPs in the country – are set to vote on net neutrality on Thursday. If they end it, here are a few of the many dangers to online freedom of expression that you should watch out for:

  • ISPs will have the power to censor the content that you see. Until now, ISPs have had to provide equal access to all content, regardless of its source, thanks to net neutrality rules. Without those rules, an ISP could choose to censor information if it conflicted with its opinions or its interests. This means that a company with greater financial power, for example, could make a deal with an ISP to have a competitor’s content slowed down or censored completely.
  • ISPs will have power to make communicating easier for groups they agree with and more difficult for groups they don’t. Companies are trying to dismiss this concern as merely theoretical, but it isn’t fear-mongering at all: it has already happened. In 2007, Verizon Wireless denied the abortion-rights group NARAL access to a text-messaging program that the group used to communicate with their supporters. Verizon’s argument? That they would not provide service to any group “that seeks to promote an agenda or distribute content that, in its discretion, may be seen as controversial or unsavory to any of our users.”
  • Perhaps most important, you likely won’t know if you are being denied access to certain information. Internet platforms are notoriously loath to release data, including the details of what they censor. If ISPs gain the authority to decide which content you see and how quickly you see it, they are unlikely to be any more forthcoming than platforms.
  • Smaller internet voices will suffer, while larger ones will thrive. Even when ISPs aren’t censoring based on opinions, they might still give preferential treatment to powerful internet voices while limiting less powerful ones. ISPs could create an option for companies to pay more to have their content delivered to users at higher speeds and penalize companies that are unable to pay as much, by slowing their content down until it is basically unusable. This would amplify the already powerful voices (and opinions) of companies like Google while, in effect, silencing the voices of smaller or less-mainstream content providers.
  • Users will have the “choice” to purchase access only to parts of the internet. Although this might seem like an advantage of ending net neutrality, examples from around the world have demonstrated why this could lead to increased misinformation campaigns. In Myanmar, for example, Facebook partnered with the state-run telecommunications company MPT to provide access to their site’s “free basics” program. This allows users to browse Facebook along with a limited number of other sites for free without counting toward a cellular data plan. This has left Facebook as the defacto news provider for millions of people in Myanmar who do not necessarily have access to the rest of the internet and therefore can neither confirm nor deny the reliability of what they read on Facebook. This is especially troubling in Myanmar today, where support for country’s military campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya has largely been deemed the result of misinformation spread on social media (a fact made evident when one proudly anti-Rohingya local Burmese politician told the New York Times, “I have to thank Facebook because it is giving me the true information in Myanmar.”)

When people have less access to information, they are more easily misled and made to believe that what they are reading is true, regardless of its source. An internet controlled by a few powerful companies also means that there will be fewer opportunities for narratives that run counter to the positions held by such companies. All of this has the potential to make it more possible for Dangerous Speech to flourish.


Cover photo is available under the Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication