On December 14th 2017, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) will vote on a very important issue that will have ramifications for every website on the internet. The FCC will vote to undo regulations classifying broadband internet as a Title II “common carrier.” This change in status will remove the strong consumer protections for net neutrality and make them a voluntary commitment for Internet Service Providers (ISP) like Verizon, Comcast and Time Warner Cable. Net neutrality is the principle that all content on the internet should be equally accessible without favoring or blocking any particular website. It is a principle that has been a part of the Internet since its inception. The current Chairman Ajit Pai, argues Title II regulation was a heavy-handed approach that attacked threats and not actual harms. The Chairman is ignoring a history of ISP behavior and courtroom challenges which prompted the FCC to instate the Title II protections. This is an important debate that may soon impact how consumers view and pay for online content.
Net Neutrality Provides a Neutral Playing Field
The internet is the largest open and free market in the world. There is a low barrier to entry, it is available to people around the world, and all companies in the online market are equally assessable. A new startup can compete with established tech giants based on their company’s merits. This neutral playing field is how the Internet has always worked. ISPs act as your entry point to the internet, sending and receiving all websites and data equally.
Being the gatekeepers puts the ISPs in a unique position of power and they began to test the limits. In 2005, Madison River Communication of North Carolina was blocking the VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) traffic for its customers. This paid-for service was being blocked by the gatekeepers. At the time, the FCC was able to convince the ISP to allow the traffic but it would not be the last time, AT&T also would block VoIP traffic in 2007-09. This would be a pattern over the years for different internet protocols. Comcast was slowing down BitTorrent traffic in 2007, Verizon was blocking tethering applications and a variety of ISPs slowed or blocked streaming videos.
ISPs make products that compete with other companies, and controlling access to the marketplace gives them an incredible advantage. From 2011-13, AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon blocked Google Wallet from being installed on their smartphones. These three companies had a stake in an unfortunately named internet wallet competitor, Isis. Their explanation was compatibility issues, however Sprint had the same phones and supported the application. Google was able to win this fight by having enough muscle to push back, and eventually acquired the now defunct Isis. Google has the resources to fight ISPs strong-arming but not many companies are in a position to engage in long drawn out litigation and losses while their product loses market share.
The internet is a platform for free speech, and is where any issue, big or small, can have an audience. No other time in history have the people around the world been more accessible. As the gatekeepers, ISPs can filter out what they deem unacceptable and present views they endorse. In Canada, the ISP Telus was in a labor dispute. In July 2005, they blocked customers from accessing a website supporting striking union members. Citing “inappropriate content,” they blocked the website until the content issue was resolved. It is no secret that there is a lot of inappropriate websites online, but it is clear in this specific instance Telus took action because this website was a protest against them. When you hold the power to control what people see, it makes stifling opposition very easy.
Title II Protection
These cases of ISPs violating net neutrality are just some of the issues the FCC saw with the old regulations. Their authority would be undermined even further in a court case with Verizon in 2014. The Washington D.C. Circuit Court determined the FCC had no authority to enforce network neutrality rules for “information providers.” In 2015, as a response to this ruling and public advocacy, Chairman Tom Wheeler, reclassified ISPs to Title II common carriers. This solidified net neutrality as a core tenet of the Internet and guaranteed a level playing field for competing websites. This is the situation we are currently in, users have equal access to all content online. Businesses do not have to make deals directly with ISPs to improve their speeds or access. However, this is all about to change.
The Impact of Reverting Title II
On December 14th, the Title II net neutrality protections are expected to be reverted. Ajit Pai and other advocates of the repeal have made arguments that these protections reduce investment in broadband networks, are unnecessary because of ISP competition and these regulations are for perceived threat but not against any actual harm. I believe this position puts the needs of the ISPs before the needs of the whole internet. ISPs support a very important part of connecting people to the internet and investment into ISPs continued with net neutrality. Removing net neutrality just adds another dimension of competition to ISPs. ISPs and websites will have to spend time and resources making deals with each other to decide how their content is delivered to users. This is why net neutrality is important, equal access to all content is the non-negotiable starting point. Websites can focus on continuing to deliver content and ISPs can continue to expand and speed up their network. As for net neutrality being a protection against a “boogey man,” this is flat-out false. As I demonstrated, before 2015 ISPs took any opportunity they had to control the flow of information. The court cases leading up to 2015 were stripping the FCC’s power to regulate these companies. With the rules repealed, the FCC will not have limited their ability to regulate their power, and most complaints will now have to go through the Federal Trade Commission.
What Can You Do?
The FCC vote seems all but certain at this point. This repeal is not good for users or businesses. The wide-open internet seems destined to be divided behind paywalls and slowdowns. You can view public comments on the proceeding here and add your own. You can also contact your local Representative and state your opinion. This might not stop Thursday’s vote, but we can hope for is there is enough consumer outcry for the FCC to realize this decision was a mistake. Let us do all we can to protect the Net.