(Photo credit: BackyardProduction @istock.com)
On December 14, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) will vote on whether to keep or dismantle existing net neutrality legislation. This is the latest skirmish in a series of battles over net neutrality.
So why should you care? Because net neutrality, like free speech, is one of the fundamental principles that make the internet, the internet. Weakening or eliminating net neutrality will shape the internet and our access to it for decades to come. So if you like your internet, and want to keep your internet, read on.
WHAT IS NET NEUTRALITY?
The basic principle of net neutrality is that ALL BITS ARE CREATED EQUAL. Under net neutrality, internet service providers (ISPs) like Comcast, Cox, and Verizon, cannot discriminate against bits based on type of data, origin, or destination. This is similar to the way the telephone company works: if I make a local call, the telephone company cannot charge me more for talking to Mrs. A instead of Mrs. B, or for calling Joe’s Pizza instead of Sally’s Bakery. Nor can the telephone company give me a lousy connection whenever I call a political organization they don’t like, or talk to someone in Spanish.
Similarly, under current regulations, my ISP must treat all the data they send my way the same, whether it comes from Netflix, Joe’s Pizza, a peer-to-peer site, an alt-news site, or an obscure foreign language blog. In essence, the ISP acts as “passive tubes”, transmitting the flow of data wherever it needs to go without actively influencing it.
This is the way the Internet has (mostly) been run from its inception until now. But in recent years ISPs have been arguing that net neutrality places an unfair financial burden on them, by allowing bandwidth-hogging content providers like Netflix to overload ISP infrastructure without paying their fair share towards upgrading it. And now that President Trump has appointed Anjit Pai, a former lawyer for Verizon, as head of the FCC, ISPs are seizing their chance to get rid of net neutrality for good.
So do they have a valid argument? Let’s look at how things work now
Let’s say we have a major content provider, call it NetFlocks, who provides movies on demand. NetFlocks sends these movies out onto the Internet via their own network provider, PhatTubes, Inc., a Tier 1 ISP with massive bandwidth capabilities. NetFlocks pays PhatTubes handsomely for this privilege.
PhatTubes then sends the data to an Internet exchange, where the data is distributed according to various peering agreements to lower-level Tier 2 and 3 ISPs, one of which is company XYZ. XYZ then uses its infrastructure to send the movies to its customers. These customers pay XYZ, not so handsomely, for this privilege.
But with more and more customers streaming higher and higher definition movies, XYZ is running out of bandwidth. So they have to upgrade their infrastructure, which a) costs a lot of money, and b) leaves less money available for important things, like executive salaries and shareholder profits. XYZ could try to recoup infrastructure costs by jacking up their prices, but if they do that they risk losing customers, because the average American is broke.
So where else could they get the money? Go after the deep pockets. Joe Blow is broke; NetFlocks is not. So how to make NetFlocks pay you, when you’re not their ISP, and they’re not your customer? By violating net neutrality, and holding their data hostage. You identify and deliberately slow down any data coming from NetFlocks (a process called throttling), so that Joe Blow can’t watch a NetFlocks movie without it jittering and hanging. Then you demand money from NetFlocks to restore their service. NetFlocks has no choice but to pay up, or risk losing all of XYZ’s customers.
Unlikely scenario, you say? It’s already happened: Major ISPs accused of deliberately throttling traffic.
So in essence, when ISPs say they want content providers to pay “their fair share”, what they’re really saying is that they want content providers to pay twice: first to their primary ISPs, for putting their data on the Internet, and then to the secondary ISPs, for transmitting the data to the end-user.
Thus the internet is no longer a series of passive tubes, but a series of toll roads, where content providers must pay a ransom at every internet exchange in order to ensure that their data continues forward without interference.
In theory, this extra toll money will be used by ISPs to upgrade their infrastructure, allowing a better internet experience for everybody. In practice, nothing prevents those ISPs from spending that money on hookers and blow. So it’s quite possible that content providers will get gouged, with no benefit to consumers at all. IOW, the “good” isn’t all that good.
But it gets worse. Let’s take the above scenario to its logical conclusion. If XYZ can successfully hit up NetFlocks for money, why not hit up all the content providers? Google, Amazon, Facebook, Twitter – they all have deep pockets, make them all pay “their fair share”.
And what about the little guys? Joe’s Pizza, Sally’s Bakery, Sanchez’ Auto Parts? They don’t have deep pockets. So why should an ISP waste precious bandwidth, bandwidth that could command top dollar from the big boys, on their shitty little websites? If you can’t pay, you can’t play. High bidders will get the phat pipes; small businesses will get relegated to the internet hinterlands with dial-up speeds.
But why stop there? If you can get extra money from content providers by holding their data hostage, why not do the same to your customer base? Want to shop at a store that isn’t Amazon? Then you’ll need to buy our extra MegaShopper Package for an additional $29.99 a month. Want to access news sites that aren’t Facebook or Twitter? Then you’ll have to buy our special Informed Citizen package for a mere $49.99 a month. Want to access international websites? Get our all-inclusive Potential Terrorist Package for the low, low price of $149.99 a month, with NSA surveillance thrown in for free!
Thus the internet will gradually start to look like cable TV – a tiered system, with a “Basic Package” allowing access to a dozen or so major websites, and costly optional packages for accessing smaller sites, if they can be accessed at all. Which brings me to the next section.
Imagine, for a moment, that you live in a country where the government is not your friend (difficult, I know). A country where the government considers its people as resources to be exploited. Such a government would want it citizens to be smart enough to work, consume, and obey, but not smart enough to think for themselves or to organize resistance. How would such a government view the internet?
On the one hand, it’s a wonderful tool for indoctrination and distraction. On the other hand, it exposes the proles to dissenting opinions and alternative news sources. This might give the proles ideas. The proles might start to ask questions.
So it needs to be controlled. But how? Overt censorship would generate pushback; eliminating the internet would cause a revolt.
So do it gradually. Start by soothing the proles with talk about how you’re protecting them from “fake news” and “hate speech”. Use throttling to restrict access to any sites expressing forbidden views or unpleasant truths, without exposing yourself to accusations of overt censorship. Use a tiered Internet structure to herd all the proles into “digital ghettos” – a handful of websites run by government friendly entities, where the government can control everything the proles hear and see, and monitor everything the proles write or buy.
Even more Orwellian, you could use these sites for psychological experimentation – manipulating the proles’ information space and then studying the effects it has on their mood and behavior.
Think it can’t happen? Facebook has already admitted performing “experiments” on their users to see how their emotional states responded to changes in their news feeds.
Think ghetto-ization can’t happen? Look at conventional media – 90% of all media outlets, including radio, television, movies studios, and newspapers, are owned by the same six companies. This was not by accident. Consolidation was encouraged to facilitate control. Now imagine if 90% of all Internet pages accessible to you were provided by the same six companies. This is the power that the government can gain by eliminating net neutrality.
SO WHAT CAN WE DO?
- Get informed – research net neutrality and its implications for your own life.
- Make your opinion known – you can find instructions on how to leave a comment for the FCC here, and/or you can call, email, or write your congressman. If you don’t know who your congressman is, you can find out here. You can find out who your senator is is here.
- Get active – join a net neutrality activist group, or start one of your own. Make as many people aware of the issue as you can – there is power in numbers.
My prayer is that the FCC will bow to the will of the people. My cynicism says they won’t. In which case, the next step is to take it to the Congress and the courts. Educate yourselves, and don’t let anybody tell you what you can and can’t read. Information needs to be free.