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New 'Internet Freedom Act' Would Do the Opposite of What You'd Think

The head of the Federal Communications Commission recently outlined his plan to change net neutrality rules, and now a bill before Congress would forbid them from ever going back. 

Ars Technica reports that the ironically named "Internet Freedom Act" would prohibit the FCC from classifying ISPs as common carriers or from imposing "certain regulations" on them. The bill was signed on by nine Senators, including notable former presidential candidates Ted Cruz and Rand Paul. The bill appears to be similar to one proposed last year, and comes just after a Federal Court rejected a challenge from ISPs to the Obama-era rules.

For background, the FCC implemented a rules change in 2015 that classified ISPs as common carriers, which allowed them to prohibit providers from engaging in practices like blocking, throttling, or prioritizing Internet access. This is the backbone of net neutrality, which asserts that the Internet's sanctity as an information tool is reliant on all data being treated equally.

The fear among net neutrality advocates is that without these rules in place, ISPs could throttle or block certain types of traffic. That concern seems utterly reasonable considering many ISPs like Time Warner and Comcast also have vested interests in their own cable services, which are currently under threat from online-only services like Netflix or Hulu. Without net neutrality rules in place, Comcast could conceivably, for example, slow any traffic coming from Netflix to make their own cable services more appealing by comparison. And given that many ISPs are the only high-speed available in areas across the country, there's no real threat of competition.

FCC chairman Ait Pai, recently appointed by President Donald Trump, had been critical of the 2015 decision, and announced plans to hand control back to the Federal Trade Commission. That means the FTC would be the sole enforcement mechanism, significantly weakening the protections for net neutrality. The rules would presumably still be enforced, but in a weaker state. This bill would assure that weakened state would remain in place forever.

Some Senators do favor legislation to give net neutrality the force of law, rather than voluntary pledge-keeping from a single government agency, but this particular bill does not seem to strengthen consumer protections. So when they say "Internet Freedom," they're talking about freedom for the ISPs.

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