Chances are that by now you have heard the term ‘net neutrality‘ thrown around, probably alongside some apocalyptic predictions of ‘life after the free internet’. But after the FCC set aside the rules protecting ‘net neutrality’ last November, changes which have just gone into effect – you might see people online saying ‘I don’t see a difference’ and assuming there was no big deal to begin with.
Regardless of your thoughts on the political morass behind much of the debate, here are a few grounding principles with some context to help you better understand what is going on:
1. What IS Net Neutrality: internet (net) neutrality is the concept that the internet is an unregulated set of pipes of data, and that neither the government nor any company can control or regulate either what goes through those pipes or the speed at which it travels.
It means that there are no restrictions of any kind to the types of content available, or access to that content, to uploads, downloads, or even any of the methods used to access information or communicate (such as email, web, chat, phone apps, etc).
In addition, it means that access will not be blocked or slowed down based on who owns an access point, nor can it be sped up preferentially for companies who want to pay more.
In short, Net Neutrality ensures equality of data for everyone.
2. Why is Net Neutrality important? Net Neutrality is important both for what it allows and what it prevents.
I have been using ‘the internet’ since 1984 – at a time when it was a rough connection of servers from universities and government … and at a time when I could literally type faster than data was transferred. But still – the ability to communicate with others at different universities working on similar problems was stunning.
Since the earliest days, the internet has been bound only by the imagination of creators and the hardware available. I was fine with everything in text format – and then the web came along. The ability to openly communicate to people all over the world is something we take for granted. Think about it – the World Wide Web is just over 25 years old, and yet it has seen nearly boundless growth and has been the platform for incredible creativity.
This morning, for example, I was involved in a conference call that involved SIX different countries, screen sharing, live examples of data analysis with active discussion from participants … and it was nothing out of the ordinary, just another Monday morning meeting.
But Net Neutrality is not a global right – it is something that people in the US, Canada, UK and the EU take for granted. Whenever there is conflict or uprising, we see that there are many governments that heavily regulate what is available. Things like Facebook, Twitter, and all sorts of news sources exist at the whim of those governments.
And that is something that Net Neutrality rules hoped to prevent. We would like to assume that in the United States we would not have our communications blocked and controlled like in China – but there is ample evidence that prior to the Net Neutrality companies were doing exactly that, which I will show later.
3. What did the FCC do? Quite simply, they removed the rules put in place in 2015. Those rules didn’t apply price controls or other regulations utilities experience, but they did forbid unequal treatment of data, and they reclassified internet access as a telecommunications service. This put it under the regulation of the Communications Act. By removing those rules, all restrictions are similarly removed – there is only a statement that whatever an internet provider chooses to do must be openly declared and communicated. Also removed is the FCC’s authority to regulate broadband and the shifting of that responsibility to the Federal Trade Commission.
The FCC now has no standing to intervene if an internet service provider (ISP) no longer allows any subscribers to access to a service like Netflix so that it can push its own video-on-demand service.
As it now stands, the FTC (Federal Trade Commission) is the sole agency with any authority to deal with issues – it can take action against companies that participate in anti-competitive activities or violate customer contracts. However, the FTC lacks a focus on communications, did not gain additional resources to handle the new responsibilities, and lacks rule-making authority to go beyond holding companies to what they say they are going to do.
4. Why would anyone OPPOSE Net Neutrality The FCC described the Net Neutrality regulations as ‘last century, utility-style regulation’ while scrapping the rules. In doing so, they claim to support an ‘open internet’ – saying that the free market under which the internet flourished should remain.
There are some who are not so much opposed to the notion of Net Neutrality, but instead felt that the FCC decision in 2015 to reclassify broadband networks so they fell under the same strict regulations governing telephone networks was an over-reach. Some were concerned that this level of regulation would unintentionally stifle innovation and competition. In other words, it isn’t a completely binary issue.
5. What does any of this mean to ME? If you own an ISP or a high-bandwidth service with loads of money, removing Net Neutrality can be a good thing – you can make higher profits or buy preferential access.
If you are a small startup, you are probably nervous, like many who opposed the Net Neutrality changes last fall. This is because you see yourself unable to compete with larger companies who can afford to buy preferential access to markets.
If you are just a normal internet user, should you worry? YES! Why? Because the 2015 Net Neutrality rules emerged after years of repeated moves by ISPs to block and limit internet access and services, including:
– In 2005 an ISP blocked the early VOIP (voice-over-internet protocol) company Vonage, until the FCC stepped in so that customers would have the choice to use Vonage.
– Comcast was caught secretly blocking peer-to-peer networking technologies. While piracy was a large part of these services, there were legitimate uses, and researchers found that Comcast blocked many legal uses … and that when subscribers signed up for Comcast they were not notified that peer-to-peer technologies were blocked.
– In the early days of the iPhone, AT&T forced Apple to block Skype – because it competed with normal calls that AT&T could charge users for at a higher profit margin.
– AT&T, Sprint, and Verizon had invested in a mobile payment service called Isis, and they blocked Google Wallet on their mobile networks.
– Verizon was caught blocking users from using tethering apps on Android phones, forcing them to use a $20 tethering plan that still charged for data.
– … and on and on.
Here is the bottom line – the internet is a huge part of the lives of millions of people, and it makes hundreds of billions of dollars for many companies. Users want the ability to access anything they want without restriction and with the full bandwidth they are purchasing. Service companies want to access the largest possible audience with their products without fear of blocking or throttling. ISPs want to maximize the return on the huge investments they make in infrastructure all over the country.
Net Neutrality sought to balance all three while placing consumer rights at the forefront. It was imperfect, but perhaps the best possible solution that met that goal. The current FCC changes place consumers last on the list, and it opens the doors for the widespread abuse and censorship seen in dictatorships and third-world countries. And that is certainly not the best solution for the people of our country.
Feel free to chime in with your own perspective, facts that I might have missed, and any other thoughts you would like to share!