If you’ve been on Reddit any time in the last few months, especially in the last two weeks, you’ve probably heard the phrase tossed about. As with just about every controversial topic, it’s pretty complicated once you dive into it.
Today, I’m going talk about what net neutrality is, why it’s in danger, and why this is such an important issue. In the effort of providing sufficient context and trying to present all sides of the argument, today is the first of a series of posts over the next few weeks.
Now, a huge disclaimer before I start: I am not an objective source on this topic. While I understand the arguments about why Net Neutrality should end, I whole-heartedly believe the benefits of Net Neutrality far outweigh the cons, and I fully support the cause for preserving Net Neutrality. In the next few weeks, I’ll be citing sources from both sides of the field, but because of my bias, I encourage you to do your own research and form your own opinions. Today, however, I aim to provide some background into why so many people care about this issue, so the bias is going to be pretty clear.
What Is Net Neutrality?
In a nutshell, Net Neutrality is a promise that all internet traffic is treated equally regardless of traffic type (video stream, website data, file transfer, etc.) or route (origin and destination). Net Neutrality guarantees that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) treat traffic traveling to and from this lowly blog the same as the media giant Netflix. Net Neutrality also says ISPs can’t slow down your service if you reach an arbitrary data limits.
Over the years, there have been a number of different proposed laws or regulations that posed a risk to Net Neutrality. Over the last 6 months or so, the argument has been focused around the FCC’s (Federal Communication Commission) classification of broadband internet as a Title II service, but the argument has been going on long before that.
In 2011 – 2012, it was the SOPA and PIPA bills that would have allowed entire domains to be removed because of a copyright complaint on a single page. Due to massive public backlash, the bill was dropped.
In 2007, Comcast was caught slowing down BitTorrent traffic1http://www.nbcnews.com/id/21376597/ns/technology_and_science-internet/t/comcast-blocks-some-internet-traffic/. While Peer to Peer (P2P) networks are mostly known for distributing illegal copies of copyrighted material, there are plenty of legitimate uses for the technology. The FCC ordered Comcast to stop this practice2hraunfoss.fcc.gov/edocs_public/attachmatch/FCC-08-183A1.pdf.
In 2005, the Madison River Communications Corporation blocked the Voice over IP (VoIP) service from Vonage. This is a particularly unsettling case because Vonage was a direct competitor to the phone service that Madison River also provided. In a settlement with the FCC, the Madison River Company had to pay $15,000 and let Vonage operate on their networks again3http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/03/25/AR2005032501328.html.
Why you’re hearing about it again
What’s important to note here is that the FCC has been actively protecting net neutrality. In the 2005 and 2007 incidents above, the FCC found difficulty in forcing the ISPs to comply because Broadband internet wasn’t explicitly protected. So in April 2015, the FCC categorized broadband internet access as a Title II Common Carrier Service. While the specifics and history of Title II deserve their own blog post, the previous rules mean that Internet Access was regulated as a utility and ISPs were not allowed to block websites or charge for better service to other websites. This is the same set of requirements that telephone lines have been regulated under for almost an entire century.
This all changed on December 14, 2017 when the FCC voted to remove Internet Access from Title II regulations which will go into effect June 11, 2018. Under the Congressional Review Act, some members of Congress are currently trying to challenge the decision and reinstate the Title II regulations. Last Wednesday (May 16, 2018), the movement passed in the Senate and it moves onto the House next. Since the FCC does not have any elected officials, the Congressional Review is the last chance we the people have any semblance of a say in the matter. This is why you are being asked to contact your congressional representatives.
Why this is important
Up until just 6 months ago, the FCC has been actively protecting Net Neutrality, but now they have removed the legal requirements and by extension have shown that they are no longer interested in continuing to protect those rights. With the body that regulates the area actively limiting their ability to actually regulate, ultimately, the FCC has given the green light to ISPs to go back to their previous actions like slowing down network traffic and limiting competition. Can you imagine if Comcast made it so the Verizon website was intolerably slow? How are you supposed to look at competing rates if you can’t browse their page? Some people (myself included) are worried that ISPs will take it a step further and start modelling internet access like Cable, that is charge more for faster speeds on certain websites and have certain “packages” to access major websites with any kind of tolerable speed. It’s not difficult to imagine having to pay extra for a Social Media package that includes Facebook, Twitter, and Google Plus for some reason. If you want to also use Instagram? Oh, well then you need to pay 4x as much for the Social Media Deluxe package that also includes a bunch of other garbage you don’t care about. Yes, this is pure speculation, but given that 1) this would make them a boatload of cash for barely any investment and 2) there’s literally nothing stopping them from doing this, let’s just say I would not be surprised in the slightest.
On a personal note, this blog is absolutely dependent on the continuation net neutrality. This is being hosted on some no-name server. There are thousands of sites that are in the same boat as us. If ISPs start offering packages to only well-known sites, what are us little guys supposed to do? Heck, even big sites like Netflix, Facebook, and even Google started off on severs hosted in their founders’ garages. I’m getting a little ahead of myself, since the next few posts are going to be pros and cons, but sites like ours have a pretty relevant interest in keeping Net Neutrality alive and running, so we’re trying to spread the word.
The internet as we know it today is really just over 20 years old. For some, that sounds like a long time. In reality, it’s still growing up. The amount of sharing and communicating we have been able to do with the internet is mind-boggling, and the pace of innovation shows no signs of slowing. The internet is going to be around for a long time.
The legal decisions we as a society make now will become the legal precedents of the future. And because the legal system is so dependent on previous decisions, the decisions made today will directly shape the decisions of the future. If you want evidence of this, search for “bad science legal precedent”. You’ll find dozens of articles like this one about forensic evidence that has been either used improperly or over-zealously that still result in convictions. Faulty evidence still finds its way into the courts even though scientists have questioned the validity and even flat-out debunked some types of analysis.
But the Senate Vote last week shows that Congress is taking action, right? Well, kind of. You see, an overwhelming 76% of Americans support Net Neutrality, with 81% of Democrats and 73% Republicans4https://blog.mozilla.org/blog/2017/06/06/new-mozilla-poll-americans-political-parties-overwhelmingly-support-net-neutrality/. Yet, somehow, the resolution last week only passed with 52% of the Senators voting for it. Despite the poll numbers showing that this is a bipartisan issue, only 3/50 voting Republican Senators voted in favor of the resolution5https://www.cnet.com/news/senate-votes-to-restore-net-neutrality-heres-how-every-senator-voted/. Somehow, this has turned into a partisan issue on the government level, despite the overwhelming support of the public.
We need to be very careful about the decisions we make regarding internet freedom and personal privacy. More importantly, we can’t let these decisions become another meaningless partisan argument point.
- Net Neutrality means being able to go to any website without discrimination
- Many website owners say the Internet as we know it depends on Net Neutrality
- The FCC used to fight to protect Net Neutrality, but recent actions show a departure from this stance
- 76% of Americans support Net Neutrality, but only 52% of the Senate voted to protect it last week