Michelle Gartner
Michelle Gartner
Senior Program Manager

Net Neutrality Rollback: Will ‘The Man’ Control Your Internet Content and Costs?

Deregulation is running rampant in today’s administration. Net Neutrality, one of the safeguards of how content is delivered on the Internet, is being threatened and could potentially be rolled back on Thursday Dec. 24th. Net Neutrality was put in place by the Obama administration in 2015 to protect Internet openness. It states that “broadband service providers cannot block or deliberately slow speeds for internet services or apps, favor some internet traffic in exchange for consideration, or engage in other practices that harm internet openness.” What does it really mean?

AppsIn the early 2000’s Internet Service Providers (ISPs) started controlling Internet content. This was enabled in 2000 with the onset of broadband. Broadband Internet services can use any wire, the copper for the phone, coax for cable, or fiber and are always on, meaning they don’t need to use a phone number to connect. When the only way to connect to the Internet was through your landline phone, the non-discrimination rules in place by the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) prohibited “unjust and unreasonable discrimination” of phone service operations. It may be hard to remember now, but it wasn’t so long ago that your service provider gave you a phone number that you entered into your computer, then clicked the connect button and waited for those annoying digital tones that connected you to the Internet. The non-discrimination rules prohibited the control of anything that was delivered over your landline service.

With the advent of new types of Internet connections came pressure from ISPs to deregulate the Internet. In March of 2002 the FCC provided a press release stating “cable modem service does not contain a separate ‘telecommunications service’ offering and therefore is not subject to common carrier regulation“ On August 5th, 2005, the FCC provided an “equal footing” for all ISPs “upholding the Commission’s light regulatory treatment of cable modem service,“ for all types of Internet connections. This came about around the same time that new technology called Deep Packet Inspection was created. This Deep Packet Inspection allowed service providers to control content that was delivered to you.

Initially this was a good thing. It enabled ISPs to watch for viruses, spam, or intrusions and prevent them from harming your devices. Unfortunately, this control over content also enabled the ability to identify specific types of content and applications an ISP may want to slow down, speed up, shut down, or not enable at all. It also allowed the ISPs to control the cost for content delivered from different sources. A couple of years ago I lived in Botswana where Internet data was a highly coveted commodity. People mostly participated in pay as you go plans, or pre-paid data cards with specified data amounts mostly using WhatsApp to communicate. Their culture is very social and they enjoy communicating constantly throughout the day. You can’t walk down one of the foot paths without each person you see greeting you and asking you how you are, or who you are, so you can imagine what happened when they discovered social media. It’s very expensive for people in developing countries to use data and some Internet content providers figured out a way to attract these users. Facebook created Facebook Zero, Google created Google Free Zone and Wikipedia created Wikipedia Zero then subsidized mobile carriers that were ISPs so they could offer these applications without charging for data. Understandably these applications quickly became the most used, and for some, the only used, content providers on the Internet. Seems like a profound way to control what content people are viewing.

In countries where there are no Net Neutrality regulations these examples and more explicit forms of propaganda and fake news are a common practice with no affordable way for the common user to fact check. A widely cited example of a violation of Net Neutrality principles in the US was the ISP Comcast's secret slowing of some applications that were data heavy, “which The Associated Press confirmed through nationwide tests, is the most drastic example yet of data discrimination”. Other examples of violating Net Neutrality are more subtle, but still problematic. The Madison River Communications Company was fined $15,000 by the FCC in 2004 for restricting access to Vonage, which was rivaling their own services. When AT&T began their shared data plans they were caught denying users who didn’t pay for their new plan access to FaceTime. In July, 2017, Netflix admitted to slowing down content on AT&T and Verizon Wireless. After Netflix was ordered to fix the content speeds, Verizon went to unlimited data plans and started slowing content from Netflix and YouTube. You can probably see where all this is heading if unregulated.

Under the new administration the FCC says that removing Net Neutrality and “Restoring Internet Freedom” is good for competition and will drive prices down. Their rational is that by removing Net Neutrality, broadband providers can increase revenues through paid prioritization and therefor invest in infrastructure, or in other words charge people for content that may get in the way of their agenda, or the agenda of their partners. They could also charge for more popular content, or charge rural communities more for internet services because it costs more to deliver content to remote areas. There are no competitors in most rural areas, so how can this spur competition? It’s already more expensive for rural communities to get broadband and as of 2016 there were no broadband services available for 39% of rural Americans and 68% living in rural areas of Tribal lands. Is rural America going to be left holding the bill? 

Removing Net Neutrality and creating the Open Internet would leave the Internet open for ISPs and content providers to manage data in any way they would like. They would be able to charge users not only for broadband connections, but also work with content providers to control what content is delivered and how much it costs. “The Man” will be able to control your Internet content and content costs. If you want to stop the FCC from rolling back Net Neutrality you can contact your local representative (even after Thursday's vote), or write congress directly through Battle for the Internet here