Over the last two decades, the internet has radically changed how we communicate, learn and play. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to suggest that the internet and its associated technologies have been the most crucial innovation humanity has enjoyed in the beginnings of the 21st century. But recent executive decisions in U.S courts regarding net neutrality are threatening to change the way we use the web forever – and many fear for the worse. And with America being one of the world’s leaders in technological innovation, could the rest of the world follow suit?
In this article, we will explain net neutrality, what its repeal means for the U.S and the rest of the world, and possibly some steps to reverse this decision.
What is net neutrality and what does Title II mean?
Net neutrality – sometimes also known as internet neutrality or open internet access – is the principle that all data is considered equal. It’s what gives you the freedom to do whatever you want on the internet – within legal reason of course. You can visit any website you wish to, use any app you wish to, stream any content you want and play any games you want. While you will likely have to pay more the more data you use, the content itself cannot be discriminated against by your ISP (Internet Service Provider).
The rules of net neutrality forbid the ISP from slowing down the delivery of specific content to suit them, or to speed up other content they prefer. They cannot throttle connections or block websites, nor can they give special access or bonuses to third parties willing to pay for them. Amazon cannot pay Verizon to speed up streaming of Amazon Prime video while slowing down or blocking Netflix. EA cannot pay Comcast to speed up the connections to their game servers while slowing down those of Activision or Blizzard. Nor can ISPs block apps or services which rival their own.
For a long time, the philosophies of net neutrality acted as the unwritten laws of the internet – it was only in 2015 in the Open Internet Order under the Obama administration that the rules of net neutrality became legally enforceable in America as broadband internet was reclassified as a Title II service – a service deemed as a utility or “common carrier”
This essentially made the internet a vital resource like water or electricity – you have to pay for water, but your water supplier can’t charge you differently based on whether you want to drink the water, use to water plants, wash the dishes with it or anything else. Under Title II, broadband internet functions in the same way.
Before the Title II classification, there had been multiple examples of ISPs breaking the rules of net neutrality and putting their interests above those of consumers.
Examples of these violations include:
Comcast – in 2005, it was discovered that Comcast were secretly blocking peer-to-peer technologies, mainly in the form of file-sharing sites and applications such as BitTorrent and Limewire.
Telus – In 2005, Telus (Canada’s then second largest telecommunications company) began blocking access to a server which hosted a website speaking out against the company, blocking another 766 unrelated sites alongside it. While this incident did not take place in America, it shows what might happen if ISPs aren’t challenged.
AT&T – In-between 2007-2009, AT&T forced Apple to block Skype and other VOIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) apps on the iPhone.
Verizon – In 2012, the FCC discovered that Verizon was blocking customers from using tethering applications on their phones and had repeatedly asked to remove free tethering applications from the Android marketplace. These applications would allow users to bypass Verizon’s $20 tethering fee. By blocking these applications, Verizon directly contradicted a net neutrality pledge they had made several years beforehand.
It isn’t always just a single company working alone to try and gain an advantage over the consumer - Between 2011-13, AT&T, Sprint, and Verizion all blocked Google Wallet from their services, as it competed with Isis – another mobile payment system which the three companies had all invested in developing.
In each of these cases, the FCC or similar organization took the offending ISP to court, and each time the result differed. For the most part, the ISPs received a slap on the wrist over their actions in the form of a fine that is only a fraction of the profits made due to the shady practices and were forced to promise they wouldn’t do it again. As the laws of net neutrality were not legally binding, the ISPs could not be punished further, with courts often claiming the FCC was overstepping its boundaries.
The Title II regulations protected the consumer from these sorts of predatory practices, and while it is perhaps too small a timeframe to be confident, no such practices had been attempted between the 2015 reclassification and the 2017 rollback.
On the 14th of December 2017, the FCC decided to reverse the 2015 decision and brand internet as a Title I service – Information service – yet again, which has very little regulation and protection compared to Title II. Now the internet is no longer protected again and without net neutrality regulation, what might happen to it?
Effects of the net neutrality repeal
Firstly are the obvious effects: we’ll likely see the same sorts of examples above repeated, with ISPs likely to get away with more of them or perhaps even begin to conduct these practices openly if they are not challenged on them.
With the net neutrality rules gone again, larger sites and corporations may be able to pay to receive faster connections to their websites – and consequently, over websites connections would have to be slowed.
Addressing the issue on a personal level, this would be devastating to smaller sites like us still trying to make a name for ourselves and may very well destroy any chances of smaller, more innovative companies competing with the already established ones.
Another common concern many have is that ISPs will begin to bundle broadband internet into different packages – making consumers pay extra for tiered bundles while offering no additional value. This is already the case in several countries in which net neutrality is not written into the laws: Portugal is one such country which the internet is divvied up into different packages resembling what you might see for cable T.V in the U.S.
It’s not just the ISPs bundling the internet into packages that might cost you more. If companies are allowed to charge sites more to grant them decent connection speeds to their visitors, these costs will likely end up being passed onto the consumer. If the ISPs are charging companies such as Netflix more because their high data demands, then the costs of that payment will likely be passed onto the consumer and the cost of a Netflix subscription would increase. With many ISPs now owning their streaming services, Netflix and other streaming services could find themselves at a considerable disadvantage.
At its worst, the repeal of net neutrality could allow for companies to silence dissent and unpopular political opinion, suppressing free speech. The larger conglomerates (Massive companies that own many other companies, but remain in the background themselves) which hold many of the ISPs often have their political agenda benefitting themselves, and more power to hide away information and sway the public into their favour is a dangerous proposition.
And once again, its worth mentioning America often leads the world in areas of technology and law. Depending on how the ruling is received in the U.S and what the ISPs are allowed to get away with, governments all around the world might start feeling pressure from the internet companies to follow suit.
Given that the downsides to repealing net neutrality seem so many and so disastrous, why is it that this has been allowed to happen? What advantages do those who advocated for the repeal of net neutrality offer? And what are the arguments against net neutrality?
ISPs also argue that if they were to adopt shady and predatory business practices, consumers could also switch to another brand. Therefore, it’s in their own interests to continue providing a valuable service to customers. However, this is not always true as there are many areas in America – and across the world – in which only one ISP provides coverage to that area and they have no other choice. And if that ISP has a lot of control over what their customers see online, it’s easy to imagine how that power could be used to influence political opinion and mindsets.
The net neutrality debate
The most common argument of those in favour of loosening internet regulations is one of money. This is an argument that Ajit Pai – the FCC Attorney who proposed to roll back the protections, and a former Verizon lawyer – and many like him put forth. They believe that regulations only serve to stifle competitiveness and innovation and that the higher efficiency and profitability of the ISPs if they were left alone, would generate far more profits which are then reinvested in new technologies and better infrastructure (Such as building better internet access in remote areas). Meaning everyone who uses the internet benefits. Of course, they are counter-arguments to this stating that any extra profits will merely end up in the pockets of CEOs and shareholders, which is not entirely without merit.
The lack of regulations could allow more freedom for smaller companies which might not be able to compete while working under a set of restrictions. Another common point is that companies such as Youtube and Netflix’s video delivery is very demanding on ISPs and it is only fair that they begin to pay a more significant share.
ISPs also argue that if they were to adopt shady and predatory business practices, consumers could even switch to another brand. Therefore, it’s in their interests to continue providing a valuable service to customers. However, this is not always true as there are many areas in America – and across the world – in which only one ISP provides coverage to that area and they have no other choice. And if that ISP has a lot of control over what their customers see online, it’s easy to imagine how that power could be used to influence political opinion and mindsets.
Conclusion - What you can do
So now you understand what net neutrality is, what its repeal could mean and a few counter-arguments, where do you stand? We’ve presented a few of the arguments of the side against Net neutrality’s Title II classification in the interest of being open and informative, but it should be pretty clear that we stand on the side of net neutrality remaining protected by law in America and all across the world.
So if you stand on the side of net neutrality with us, what can you do?
Firstly, if you live in the U.S, you can use the battleforthenet site to check where your local representatives stand on the issue and the best way to get in contact with them. Politicians from both the Democratic and Republican parties have condemned the decision reached by the FCC – so it’s worth checking.
For those outside the U.S, keep an eye on the news and any decisions being made in your government that might affect how you use the internet and net neutrality. Let the people who represent you know where you stand on the issue.
Also, remember that many of the companies who make their livelihood online are against this ruling. One such group is the Internet Association, who made it clear that companies such as Facebook, Google and Netflix were not happy with the decision and would use their influence to fight it. These companies – and many others – are expected to financially back lawsuits over the coming weeks to block the ruling.
Speaking up and letting the sites you visit and companies whose products and services you use know that you wish to continue doing so uninterrupted is another way you can do your part to protect net neutrality.
Despite the FFC’s ruling, the fight for net neutrality is not over, but just beginning. We hope too that we’ll be able to continue bringing you entertaining and informative content in an open and free internet.
- Thenation.com https://www.thenation.com/article/begin-2018-with-action-on-the-dream-act-net-neutrality-and-voter-registration/
- Daildot - title ii net neutralityhttps://www.dailydot.com/layer8/what-is-title-ii-net-neutrality-fcc/
- NYTimes - net neutralityhttps://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/05/technology/net-neutrality-lawsuit.html
- BBC - What is net neutrality http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/av/42341736/what-is-net-neutrality-and-how-could-it-affect-you
- ABC news - Net neutralityhttp://abcnews.go.com/Technology/net-neutrality/story?id=48596615