On Thursday 14 December 2017 the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted to repeal the rules, known as Net Neutrality, that regulate Internet Service Providers (ISPs), the companies that connect us to the internet.
What is Net Neutrality and why should we care?
The principle behind Net Neutrality is simple: it requires ISPs to treat all data on the internet the same. Discrimination by user, traffic type, website, platform, application, device or method of connection was not allowed. This stopped ISPs from charging more, blocking or slowing down access to websites and online content. It also meant that broadband was treated as a utility in the United States, regulated in similar ways as water and energy supplies.
The FCC voted 3-to-2 in favor of repealing the legislation that has been in effect since 2015. Reactions from numerous organizations were fast, with the Internet Association, which represents tech companies such as Google and Facebook, stating it is considering legal action.
Since Net Neutrality came into effect, consumers have enjoyed a ‘dumb pipe’ approach to their access. The ISP provides the connection and transparently routes traffic, not caring what type of traffic, where or to whom the user is connecting.
This change will potentially allow ISPs to adjust traffic based on who pays. When Ford introduced the Model T back in 1908 they revolutionized the car industry with mass production and a lower cost of purchase and ownership, but what would have happened if the incumbent more expensive manufacturers had been allowed to limit the performance of the Model T so that only their automobiles could travel at speed! The car industry today would look very different.
Challenging the repealing of net neutrality benefits us all: a small startup with a cool idea could easily be suppressed by players that can afford to pay to keep their own traffic prioritized.
“Since Net Neutrality came into effect, consumers have enjoyed a ‘dumb pipe’ approach to their access.”
Granting ISPs the right to shape traffic, allowing for some traffic to be prioritized due to a commercial agreement, may have a negative effect on the outcome of using the service for both the consumer and the company providing the service. Traffic-shaping is used in certain places today: for example, airlines may limit onboard video streaming to ensure that all passengers wishing to use Wi-Fi in the air at least get some type of connection that is not being grabbed by just a few passengers bingeing on their favorite shows.
What happens to freedom of speech if one party has the funding to allow faster access to their published content, making their opposition’s traffic slow to the point of and un-usability. Do we enter a society where only the rich can publish a useable service?
This may sound hypothetical, but 2012, AT&T had to backtrack on a decision to stop subscribers to their unlimited or tiered data plans from using Apple’s then-new Facetime service. They only allowed Facetime access to subscribers of their new shared-data plan. Imagine the reaction of consumers on an unlimited data plan discovering they were unable to use a feature of their new iPhones unless they changed plan? In that instance AT&T claimed they wanted to protect their network from the unknown volume of traffic that Facetime might add, but cynical people may view it as taking the opportunity for enhanced monetization when people purchased a new iPhone. Fortunately, the weight of consumer pressure had this rolled back.
ISPs such as AT&T and Comcast have issued statements stating nothing will change with the repeal of Net Neutrality. The fact remains, though, that Internet Service Providers can implement a system that prioritizes traffic for companies that pay. In the boardroom in 12 months, when revenue targets are not being reached, then the motivation to offer a superior for-fee service to brand A over brand B may be too tempting.
Consumers, businesses and society need to fight to keep the internet an unbiased and free place that does not depend on the decision of a few as to what can be accessed at what speed.
Author Tony Anscombe, ESET