When Donald Trump chose a fierce opponent of net neutrality to lead the Federal Communications Commission, it was obvious that it was only a matter of time before the very idea of an open internet came under fire.
As Americans get ready for Thanksgiving, Trump's FCC chief decided yesterday would be a good time to announce a major change to how the country will access online content.
The FCC's mission -- essentially gutting the internet as we know it -- would allow service providers to create so-called fast and slow lanes for subscribers.Commission Chairman Ajit Pai, a Republican, announced on Tuesday a plan to put an end to what he called the federal government's "micromanaging" of the internet. Details of the proposal will be released on Wednesday, three weeks before it will be put to a vote by the FCC on Dec. 14.
It's important to understand that what Pai describes as "micromanagement" are existing safeguards, established by the Obama administration, mandating that all online content be treated equally by service providers. Pai, a former Verizon lawyer, has long opposed those safeguards, and Donald Trump has empowered him to rewrite the rules.
You may not have realized last year that your internet access was on the presidential ballot, but it was, and we're now facing a rather severe elections-have-consequences moment.
If you need a refresher on what the net-neutrality debate is all about, imagine an online landscape in which your service provider had a package of preferred websites -- customers could access those sites quickly and easily, and they would function as they're supposed to. But the ISP also had websites with unfavorable status -- when customers tried to access sites the service provider doesn't like for whatever reason, maybe the sites would load slowly. Maybe consumers would have to pay more to access them. Maybe both.
For consumer advocates, this is a major problem. Service providers shouldn't be in a position, the argument goes, to make website access easier or harder based on the ISP's business decisions. Whether you're doing online banking, streaming content on Netlfix or Hulu, or keeping up on the news, you shouldn't face online speed bumps and toll booths to get where you want to go.
And that's where net neutrality comes in: the point is to create a level playing field, prohibiting service providers from playing favorites.
Yes, it's government regulation, but it's regulation to protect consumers and encourage online innovation.
The Republican argument is that if service providers can start making it easier or harder for consumers to access websites based on the company's business deals, it means entrepreneurs can "create economic growth." You may struggle to access online content you currently enjoy, and you may find that infuriating, but for the GOP, you're supposed to take comfort in the fact that you're "facilitating economic empowerment."
The internet may never be the same.
Disclosure: I work for MSNBC, which is owned by Comcast, which as Rachel noted on last night's show, has an interest in this fight. Comcast is on record supporting net neutrality, but the company would like to get rid of the regulations that currently guarantee it.