The Obama administration's signature technology policy is net neutrality. Rules passed by the Federal Communications Commission in 2015 prohibited internet service providers from treating web traffic differently depending on the service used.
To Obama's FCC, the rules were a way to prevent broadband providers from inappropriately kneecapping companies whose services competed with theirs, such as Netflix. Opponents saw a regulatory power grab.
Those rules are likely to be challenged almost immediately once Donald Trump becomes president. As a result, the web, especially streaming video services, could be headed down a different path.
As with many issues, trying to glean the intentions of the incoming administration requires translating a few offhand comments into a plan for public policy. Trump hasn't spent a lot of time talking about net neutrality. But his baseline hostility toward government regulation and a two-year-old tweet opposing the FCC rules have stoked expectations that net neutrality will be on the chopping block in early 2017.
In a sense, it doesn't matter how much Trump personally cares about this issue. Other Republicans do, and having control of Congress and the White House frees them to act.
Undoing net neutrality through the FCC itself would be a slow and onerous task. The agency would have to go through another rule-making process, which would involve months or years of hearings and comment periods. That could be complicated further by a federal-court decision that upheld the current set of regulations. Supporters of the current rules would almost certainly challenge any changes in court.
A more likely course for the incoming FCC chair, say advocates from both sides of the debate, is to simply pretend the current rules don't exist.
That would be welcome news for cable companies, which roundly opposed net neutrality. Companies such as Comcast, AT&T, and Verizon have become increasingly aggressive in building (and buying) their own video services to make up for their flagging subscription-television lines of business. Verizon has built a web video service, Go90, and AT&T recently announced DirectTV Now, a low-cost internet video service intended to undercut cable subscriptions.
AT&T already doesn't count its own services against data caps for its wireless subscribers, effectively making rival services more expensive. This week, the FCC told AT&T the practice may violate net neutrality rules.
With such enforcement off the table, companies that provide wireless and broadband service could push streaming video services like Netflix or YouTube to pay to keep on an equal footing.