Net Neutrality – The Spirit Lives On
What if one day your Netflix suddenly stopped streaming and displayed an error message to call your Internet Service Provider for assistance? You place the call, and the provider advises that you’re currently not subscribed to the 3rd party streaming plan to access this type of content. Come to find out; the provider is now charging a fee for access to streaming content outside of its network. You’ll have to purchase a package to access Netflix or be forced to access the providers own video streaming service which comes at an additional cost. Net Neutrality rules are protections created in the spirit of a “need to ensure the openness of the Internet, preserving users’ free and nondiscriminatory access to content, applications or services available on the Internet.” (Bello & Jung, 2015).
The scenario with Netflix is but a glimpse into the reality of a world painted by those who oppose removing the protections. If a provider does make a user pay for specific services like gaming, video streaming, or establishing a remote connection to your office, it’s considered offering a “tiered service,” which differs from the unlimited subscription model of internet services today. Research suggests that repealing Net Neutrality regulations can be bad for consumers because they harm innovation and competition between providers, but also that repealing these laws allows for consumer internet traffic to be analyzed, manipulated to block content, and throttled to decrease the performance of the transmission speeds. The potential impacts to the consumer are interruptions to streaming, lower quality video, and possibly an inability to access certain types of services by requiring additional subscription fees, and some other scenarios that we’ve yet to imagine. ISPs may not be able to experiment with business models or innovate with new services in the market.
At the heart of the Net Neutrality debate is the concern that providers will be able to analyze, manipulate, throttle, or even block access to specific content on the internet. The term open internet comes to mind when thinking about the origins of the internet – an entity born free and not intended to be commercial in origin. The internet has evolved from a platform that was facilitating communication between universities, to the birth of e-commerce websites – and now services like cloud, the blockchain, or online distance learning leverage it to deliver content to every edge of the earth. It’s become a utility for all kinds of devices as well, for example, cars, refrigerators, water bottles, luggage, and even a surfboard. The possibilities are somewhat endless when you view things through the lens of the Open Internet versus the Restricted Internet. Consumers are increasingly adopting lifestyles that revolve around these services, which necessitates a discussion about the legal rights of ISPs to control information.
It’s entirely possible that ISPs will make changes that are “self-serving, and profit-maximizing goals when enhancing or degrading content carriage.” (Frieden, 2018). The service you have doesn’t currently come with the ‘package’ you have for internet access to these types of applications. What about employees who telecommute using a VPN connection to the office? Would ISPs be able to charge a premium for this kind of access, knowing that it’s for a commercial purpose? The short answer is yes; they’re able to categorize and sell products in any way that they’d like. It’s believed that “The Internet’s openness” should be understood as a guiding principle that transcends each of the layers/tiers and extends throughout the digital ecosystem, and that each of the stakeholders of this ecosystem is essential to its development. (CIGI, 2015).”. Keeping the spirit of the internet as an open place by integrating protections for consumers is essential to the discussion, and actions by the FCC. It’s proponents want to see these core values preserved and more transparency with how providers manage network traffic.
You might be asking yourself, is all of this for nothing? What is the real threat here, and are ISPs planning, or doing this kind of thing today? After all, if they have never done this before, then Net Neutrality could potentially be a solution in search of a problem. Is there any history, or even potential for abuse by these providers? The answer is yes, and one situation where a violation of Net Neutrality occurred when an organization called Public Knowledge complained to the FCC that the number two provider of internet Comcast was throttling BitTorrent Traffic. Comcast was working with a vendor who was Sandvine, a company that sells ‘Active Network Intelligence,’ a service which can give ISPs better visibility into exactly what kind of traffic is on the network. In a statement, the company explained that “Sandvine determined that the use of several Peer-to-Peer protocols was regularly generating disproportionate burdens on the network, primarily on the upstream portion of the network, causing congestion that was affecting other users on the network.” (Comcast, 2008). Based on this research, Comcast had reportedly achieved wide-scale deployment of a blocking platform in 2007 until the FCC ruled that the “The selective blocking of file-sharing traffic interfered with users’ rights to access the internet and to use applications of their choice.”. Although Comcast had a plausible explanation, it still violated the Net Neutrality rules because it interfered with the normal transmission of information. Comcast positioned itself to analyze, and interrupt certain types of legitimate communications without any transparency to its users. Notification of these practices had not been sent to its subscribers, effectively restricting any users of the BitTorrent file-sharing method that was used at one time by NASA to accelerate the distribution of satellite data. BitTorrent is not a completely illegitimate protocol, and even if it was the issue remains that customers were unaware of these activities. Based on this occurrence of the violation, it is entirely possible that ISPs could begin blocking traffic without the transparency provided by these regulations.
A key argument from opponents of repealing Net Neutrality rules is that it negatively impacts the innovation and competition between providers. The FCC commissioner stated that “…the regulations made things worse by limiting investment in high-speed networks and slowing broadband deployment. Under Title II, broadband network investment dropped more than 5.6% — the first time a decline has happened outside of a recession.” And went on to say that “Removing these outdated and unnecessary regulations will create a strong incentive for companies to pour resources into building better online infrastructure across the country and bringing faster, better, and cheaper Internet access to more Americans.” (FCC, 2018).
The stated intention of the government that repealing these rules will aid in expansion in rural and hard-to-service areas, as well as higher average speeds throughout the US. They also wanted to allow ISPs to experiment with different business models, such as giving priority to medical applications, or self-driving cars. ISPs may experiment with security, home automation, and services like artificial intelligence that can help improve the quality of your experience in a meaningful way. There are limitless possibilities for how companies could innovate these products. Mainly, the concern is that small players in the market and start-ups wouldn’t be able to create unique services to compete with larger companies. In fact, the FCC found that “Title II regulations are bad for competition. They disproportionately burden the small Internet service providers and new entrants that are best positioned to introduce more competition into the broadband marketplace.” (FCC, 2017) And also that “Restoring Internet freedom will lead to greater investment in building and expanding broadband networks in rural and low-income areas as well as additional competition—leading to better, faster, cheaper Internet access for all Americans, including those on the wrong side of the digital divide.”. Based on these statements, it would appear that repealing could promote innovation among ISPs.
The Net Neutrality rules came under attack in January 2017, when president Donald Trump appointed Ajit Pai, an FCC commissioner who had previously voted against Title II reclassification of the internet, as the new head of the FCC. Net Neutrality was finally repealed on June 11th of 2018 and is no longer in effect after nearly 20 years of having classified internet services under the protection of telecommunication laws.
As of June 20th, 2018 thirty-six states have proposed or passed a resolution, bill, or executive order to preserve Net Neutrality since the new rules were adopted. Six states, Hawaii, Montana, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, and Vermont, have addressed this change by issuing Executive Orders requiring companies wishing to contract with the State to confirm that they will meet the 2017 net neutrality requirements. Thirty states have proposed legislation reinstating the net neutrality rules or requiring state contractors to abide by them. Ten additional states initiated Resolutions supporting Net Neutrality principles (NRRI, 2018)
Current day, there is a clause in which internet service providers or ISPs, have to disclose information about under circumstances they block or slow traffic and to disclose if and when they offer paid-priority services. The FCC has preserved the ‘transparency’ rules that had many concerned about the power over that ISPs could potentially hold over these communications. This development mitigates the risk that providers would continue to engage in activities such as blocking or throttling connections as Comcast did with BitTorrent, and not tell it’s customers. The current ruling is a win for consumers, who are only seeking a basic set of guidelines or principals to regulate the behavior of providers. It doesn’t have to be called Net Neutrality, but it does have to have increased transparency and still allow ISPs to grow and innovate in the markets in which they operate. We can’t let it be used in an anti-competitive, fraudulent, or discriminatory way to harm consumers in a way that diminishes the right to equal internet access abilities for all who seek it.
(Note: I’m actively updating this small paper I wrote for a class on Net Neutrality for a novice audience)
Bello, P., & Jung, J. (2015). Net Neutrality: Reflections on the Current Debate. GLOBAL COMMISSION ON INTERNET GOVERNANCE
CIGI. (2015). Net Neutrality: Reflections on the Current Debate https://www.cigionline.org/sites/default/files/no13_web.pdf
Corporation Corporation. (2008, September). COMCAST CORPORATION DESCRIPTION OF CURRENT NETWORK MANAGEMENT PRACTICES. Retrieved from http://downloads.comcast.net/docs/Attachment_A_Current_Practices.pdf
FCC. (2018, May 22). Releases Restoring Internet Freedom Order. Retrieved from https://www.fcc.gov/document/fcc-releases-restoring-internet-freedom-order
FCC. (2017). Myth Vs. Fact. Retrieved from https://transition.fcc.gov/Daily_Releases/Daily_Business/2017/db1128/DOC-347961A1.pdf
Frieden, R. r. (2018). Freedom to Discriminate: Assessing the Lawfulness and Utility of Biased Broadband Networks. Vanderbilt Journal Of Entertainment & Technology Law, 20(3), 655-708.
NRRI. (2018). Net Neutrality State Actions Tracker. Retrieved from http://nrri.org/net-neutrality-tracker/