SALT LAKE CITY — If you’ve been online at any point in the last few months or so, you’ve likely heard or seen something about net neutrality.
Businesses, activist groups and regular internet users have rallied to defend net neutrality from a rollback of regulations proposed by the Federal Communications Commission.
With an impending vote on the issue scheduled for Dec. 14, activists have organized nationwide protests Thursday in front of Verizon stores to protest the proposed changes.
Utah will be home to eight different protest locations in St. George, Orem, American Fork, Riverdale, Logan and three in Salt Lake City, according to Battle For the Net, an activist site supported by Fight for the Future, Demand Progress and Free Press Action Fund.
“This is going to be the biggest decision made in the information age," said Bryan Huxford, Park City resident and protester at Verizon's Sugar House location.
Net neutrality is Obama-era regulations that essentially mean internet service providers (ISPs) must treat all data on the internet the same. They cannot discriminate based on the user, content, platform, etc.
This prohibits ISPs (like Comcast, CenturyLink and Verizon) from slowing down or boosting streaming or loading speeds for different websites. ISPs cannot charge data-heavy sites like YouTube or Netflix more to provide their content, even though it may be significantly more information than other sites.
When the rules were passed in 2015, they were the most stringent that cable and telecom companies had experienced. In May, the Republican-backed FCC voted to reduce the regulations on ISPs.
Ajit Pai, chairman of the Republican-backed FCC, has proposed that ISPs be redesignated as Title I “information services” companies with lighter regulation, as opposed to Title II, which are required to abide by tighter telecommunications rules. The Dec. 14 vote is expected to pass along party lines, allowing the proposal to move forward.
In April, a group of small cable providers signed a letter addressed to the FCC asking it to end net neutrality, saying the policy imposed “onerous burdens” on their business.
“Heavy-handed regulations are especially tough on new entrants and small businesses that don’t have the armies of lawyers and compliance officers that large, well-established companies do,” Pai said.
Those who support the rollbacks also believe that companies using a lot of data (like Netflix or YouTube) are slowing the internet down. They say charging big streaming companies could lead to a faster and more efficient connection (though this would most likely up the price for consumers using these services). It may also end illegal downloading through sites like BitTorrent.
Most Utah leaders are in support of net neutrality and a rollback of regulations. Sen. Mike Lee has said that most of the debate around net neutrality has been "hyperbolic" and most who defend net neutrality erroneously believe that the FCC wants to “squelch competition,” “limit consumer choice,” “raise prices" and “destroy the Internet.”
"But none of this is true. Rather, the FCC is reviving the 'light-touch' regulatory environment that facilitated innovation and expanded internet access to millions of Americans over the course of many years," Lee said in a May statement to the senate.
Verizon has publicly stated it supports the FCC changes. It believes net neutrality is an outdated set of rules that undermine investment and innovation and pose a significant threat to the internet’s continued ability to grow and evolve to meet consumers’ needs. However, it has come out in support of protesters gathering in front of stores Thursday.
"Like those expressing their views today, Verizon fully supports an open internet and believe consumers should be able to use it to access lawful content when, where and how they want. We've publicly committed to that before and we stand by that commitment today,” said Rich Young, a spokesman for Verizon.
Most are concerned that if net neutrality is abolished, ISPs could segregate the internet into two different camps: one for major companies who could afford to pay for faster internet and those who can’t.
Others are worried that ISPs like AT&T, Verizon and Comcast could throttle speeds, charge users more to access specific websites or, more likely, charge companies like Netflix or YouTube for “fast passes” that would let them buy faster bandwidth. This could drive up costs for consumers of those services and make it difficult for smaller businesses who couldn’t afford the costs of providing their content on the “fast lane.”
“Blocking and throttling by ISPs is a serious problem,” the Battle for the Net protest website reads. “Comcast has throttled Netflix, AT&T blocked FaceTime, Time Warner Cable throttled the popular game League of Legends and Verizon admitted it will introduce fast lanes for sites that pay — and slow lanes for everyone else — if the FCC lifts the rules. This hurts consumers and businesses large and small.”
Smaller businesses may feel the brunt of the change if service providers allocate bandwidth to those who can pay more, making it difficult for startups without the funds to establish a web presence.
“It needs to be a utility. It needs to be open. Startups need to be allowed to flourish and not be subject to extortion," said Therus Kolff, a Millcreek resident and protester at Verizon's Sugar House location. "Everybody should care. There are very, very few people who don't use the internet today. ... I don't think people are aware of the consequences to them."
Pai has said that ISPs will have to be transparent with their customers and let them know if they constrict or throttle particular websites — something that many providers have promised not to do. Many consumers, however, don't have the opportunity to switch ISPs if they discover theirs is throttling internet speeds.
Over 170,000 Utahns have only one internet provider choice for a specific level of service, according to the Utah Broadband Outreach Center.
Rep. John Curtis, Utah’s newly-elected congressman, has come out in support of net neutrality, though he has also expressed concern over excessive regulation.
“I support the principles of net neutrality, such as no blocking, throttling or paid prioritization. That said, I’m concerned that heavy-handed regulation of the internet will stifle innovation and economic growth,” Curtis said in a statement.
Curtis will be holding discussions in Utah’s third district to gauge his constituents’ opinions about the FCC’s proposal. Constituents can send Curtis their thoughts or contact the office if they’d like to host or participate in a net neutrality discussion here.
Those wishing to attend a protest Thursday can find more information about locations and times on Battle for the Net here.