Net neutrality is on life support now in the United States, with less than one week until the Federal Communications Commission is set to vote on Chairman Ajit Pai’s proposal to pull the plug on the open internet protections. If all goes to plan for Pai, by as early as January, internet providers will be permitted to speed up access to some websites that are willing and able to pay.
But it’s hard to say what using the internet without net neutrality in the U.S. will actually be like. There are many different paths internet service providers might take, and a lot of the action will probably happen over time, not all at once.
It may start with ISPs offering streaming services like Netflix, Spotify, or YouTube the opportunity to pay a fee to reach users at faster speeds during certain times of the day. It may mean Comcast speeds up access to its own video service. Or many AT&T customers will get a better connection to HBO than Comcast subscribers, and Verizon subscribers get a better connection to Facebook. Using Google Maps might not count against your data plan on your phone, but using Yelp would. But one thing we do know is that any anti-competitive behavior from Comcast won’t start until September, since one of the conditions it agreed to when the feds approved its merger with NBC/Universal required Comcast to abide by net neutrality until then.
One way to imagine what might happen to the U.S. internet in a post–net neutrality world is to look at how ISPs act in countries without net neutrality. There aren’t very many examples, but those we do have should give us reason to worry. Those case studies suggest that providers can find many ways to extract fees from subscribers, steer their buying habits, and charge websites and online platforms to get priority access to internet users.
In many countries without net neutrality, mobile plans are the worst culprit. Take what happens in Guatemala, for example. “Many people will have two SIM cards there because on one SIM card they can access WhatsApp for free, and on another SIM card you access Facebook for free,” says Renata Avila, a senior adviser at the Web Foundation. If you buy a small amount of data that gets used up quickly, WhatsApp will still be accessible after the cap is reached, but not the rest of the internet. If you do try to access other websites or apps, you’ll be prompted to pay more. Similar mobile internet plans exist in Balkan countries, Avila said, but there you might buy a SIM card that favors Viper, a popular messaging service in that region.
This practice is also common throughout the European Union. The EU has net neutrality laws, but they don’t outright prohibit mobile plans that allow users to only access certain apps without cutting into their data plans. Rep. Ro Khanna, a Democrat from California, described the situation in Portugal in a tweet that went viral in October. The tweet showed a page from Meo, a mobile and home internet provider in Portugal that offers various packages made up of websites and apps that don’t cut into your monthly data plan. So if you use social media a lot, you can buy a package that allows you to use Snapchat, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and a few other major social media companies without cutting into your data, a practice commonly called zero-rating. It’s a model that actually isn’t illegal in the U.S. even under the current network neutrality rules, which state that the FCC can consider on a case-by-case basis whether companies are using data caps in anti-competitive ways. In fact, AT&T already does this in the U.S. by providing its home broadband customers with unlimited free data when they also subscribe to the AT&T-owned DirecTV. AT&T mobile customers can also stream content from DirecTV for free. Similarly, certain T-Mobile plans allow users to stream as much Spotify or Apple Music as they’d like without cutting into their data allotment.
This may sound like a nice perk, but privileging access to certain apps in packages like this helps cement the dominance of incumbent powerful internet brands, since users can’t even access other apps once their small pool of data is used up, and it’s the telecomm that decides which apps make it into the bundle. “This incentivizes telecoms not to increase data caps on mobile internet,” says Estelle Masse, a senior policy analyst at Access Now, an international digital rights advocacy group. A more net neutrality friendly approach, Masse explains, would be to get rid of or lift the data caps altogether.
Beyond not charging for access to particular websites or apps, there are also cases of internet providers straight-up blocking access to certain kinds of apps. In Morocco in 2016, multiple internet providers agreed to block voice over internet services, like Skype or WhatsApp, potentially in an effort to push users to subscribe to phone plans. Unhappy Moroccans heavily protested the ban, which was lifted months later. In a particularly egregious case in Canada in 2005, the telecom company Telus blocked access to a union website that promoted a labor strike against the internet company. In 2012, AT&T announced it would block U.S. users’ access to FaceTime on iPhones unless they paid for a higher data plan, but it reversed course after consumer advocates sent complaints to the FCC.
All of these examples differ in important ways, and none illustrates exactly what a fully tiered internet looks like. But together, they tell a story about what Americans might be able to expect starting next year. These non-neutral practices aren’t necessarily obvious when they’re happening, and they might not feel particularly nefarious. If AT&T customers are getting free music streaming from one service, they might not care that it’s disadvantaging other music streaming companies. And users also might not realize what they’re missing: Access to rare songs or works from independent artists that don’t make it onto the free streaming app. Meanwhile, the idea of what the internet is, a place where it’s easy to discover all kinds of hard-to-find music and become an aficionado on just about any genre, may begin to disappear. The internet could become more homogenized in turn, as fewer people continue to contribute to niche communities.
The scary part is that it might happen piecemeal—with one free service here and one slower website there. Before we know it those who are already in power may become further entrenched, and we’ll all be worse off for it.