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Others’ opinion: Keep the internet fair and open to all

The Federal Communications Commission should stop its pell-mell rush to obliterate rules that have put a check on telecom giants with a plan that has sparked widespread worries about its impact on consumers, small businesses and the economy.

Net neutrality is a numbing phrase, but one that is more important than most consumers know. It is what prevents internet service providers (ISPs) such as AT&T, Verizon, Comcast and others from slowing, speeding or blocking the delivery of online content for their own financial advantage.

The internet has flourished under the existing framework. But FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, appointed by President Donald Trump, has made it his mission to dismantle it, claiming  — without much evidence or analysis  — that “heavy-handed regulation” has made it harder for smaller ISPs to flourish.

But in truth, it is the handful of large ISPs that dominate the American market that have pushed the hardest for an end to net neutrality. They say lifting regulations would allow them to offer more products with higher and lower price points. What could that mean? Critics  — and there are many  — say it means the fastest delivery speeds go to those willing to pay the most.

Want access to the high-speed streaming needed to watch Netflix? That could cost extra. In fact, internet plans could wind up looking more like cable plans, where consumers are forced to sign up for dozens of channels they don’t want just to get the ones they do. Small businesses could find themselves at a disadvantage, unable to compete with large companies willing to pay higher prices for faster content delivery. Companies may say they won’t do that, but there would be little in the law to prevent it.

U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., who sits on the Senate Commerce Committee, has said that repealing net neutrality protections would harm consumers, entrepreneurs and innovators while doing little to close the digital divide, caused in part by the lack of high-speed broadband access in much of rural America.

Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak and other internet pioneers have asked that the FCC’s board vote, scheduled for Thursday, be canceled. They have called Pai’s plan “rushed and technically incorrect” and an “imminent threat to the internet we worked so hard to create.” More than 200 businesses and civic organizations across Europe have registered their opposition, warning that ending net neutrality could undermine privacy, free speech and competition on the internet and have global repercussions because of U.S. dominance online.

The FCC should more carefully vet this far-reaching repeal of protections that have served the U.S. well. Much of the nation’s economy  — and lifestyle  — now depends on this revolutionary system that has connected the world even as it reshaped it.