FCC Chairman Ajit Pai won a victory with the recent failure to overturn the Restoring Internet Freedom Order, which essentially reclassifies broadband Internet access as an informational service governed by the FTC, rather than a telecommunications service governed by the FCC.
And really, if you asked me to check a single box to classify the Internet’s primary purpose as information or communication, I’d have to agree it’s about information. But that’s not where the problem lies. That reclassification means the Internet is basically a commodity that’s for sale however the seller wants to package it. It’s not viewed as an essential life service, such as telephones, electricity or water, despite the profound impact it has on our everyday lives.
Instead, the government will treat the Internet as entertainment, like cable TV. And as part of it’s basic service, cable TV only requires “any public, educational, or government access channels” in additional the normal over-the-air broadcasts. Everything else costs extra, either as a pay-per-channel or part of a packaged deal. Plus, there’s no requirements to ever include every available channel, demographic or niche.
Think about what that would mean for the Internet. “Restoring Internet Freedom Order” isn’t about promoting a free Internet. It’s about promoting freedom of the Internet Service Providers (ISP) to do whatever they want to turn a profit. That includes restricting content, selectively throttling sites or censoring content altogether. That’s hardly Internet freedom, at least not for you and me. That’s the death of Net Neutrality and a whole lot of freedoms that come with it.
What Is Net Neutrality?
Just so we’re all on the same page, let me explain what Net Neutrality actually is. Pai describes it as heavy-handed government oversight, the wording of such brings about Big Brother ideas and sends privacy advocates clambering up the wall. But that’s not the take home message. Net Neutrality is about equality. It’s ensuring ISPs remain unbiased and provide unfettered Internet access. It’s about ensuring every website, every blogger, every technology and every data source get treated equally and your choices of what to read, what services to use or what technologies you employ is your decision alone…not one forced on you by your ISP. Without Net Neutrality, we’re essentially legalizing wide-scale censorship.
A Scary Example
Imagine for a second that you just signed up for Internet service. Excited, you jump online to do your normal connected routine. You open up Facebook, but instead of the latest feed, your ISP displays a message that Facebook isn’t included in your basic service, but if you want to access Facebook and other social media accounts, you can upgrade your plan by adding the Social Package for $XX per month.
Disgusted, you open Google to search what’s going on, but instead you’re directed to your ISP’s in-house search engine and the filtered results it provides. Nothing there against the ISP of course, but you manage to get on another search engine and find a result which detailed criticisms and workarounds for your particular ISP. You click the link, but find another message stating that particular domain is not supported by your ISP.
You need a break. You plop down on the couch and fire up Netflix on your TV. But the image is pixelated and low-resolution, not like the high-definition you’re used to. Plus, it stutters and freezes quite often, so you go back online. As soon as you do, you receive a notice stating, “we noticed you recently accessed Netflix. For a better Netflix experience, please upgrade your account to include video-streaming and full HD content for $XX per month.”
Fed up, you try to open up another ISP’s website to check their rates. Unfortunately, you’re again met with a error stating that domain is not supported on your current network. But since you’re lucky enough you live in an area with multiple ISP options, you open up yet another competitor’s site. But this one takes several minutes to load a single page, so you can’t imagine how horrible their service might be and don’t want to risk the trouble and expense of testing them out. So realizing you’re stuck, you call your ISP to upgrade your package, which ends up costing three times as much as you originally planned on spending.
I realize that sounds a little paranoid, but it’s exactly the experience everyone has with cable TV now. That is, the provider has control over what to include (or not include) and how to charge you for anything not included in the basic service. We’re just so used to it that we don’t give it a second thought. But when you apply the same structure to something we now consider critical to our personal and professional lives, it’s scary indeed.
What Could ISPs Do Exactly?
Without Net Neutrality, ISPs have a wide range of strategies to increase their own profits and extract money from you. I don’t attempt to predict the likelihood that any of these will actually occur, but given the current lack of oversight, your ISP could:
- Block websites: Your ISP would have the right to use it’s own discretion to block websites. That would mean that while on their network, you could be blocked from seeing sites that:
- are competitors of theirs or speak ill of their business;
- the government or other third-parties pressures or pays them to block;
- contain adult content or content the ISP themselves object to;
- support political candidates or ideals the ISP doesn’t support;
- the ISP feels would tempt you to use excessive bandwidth, like Netflix or YouTube; or
- offer VPN services which could potentially circumvent their censorship.
- Throttle websites or protocols: Rather than blocking websites, they could throttle them to conserve bandwidth, which makes them much slower and/or eliminates high-definition content. Prime candidates for throttling include:
- video streaming sites, such as Netflix, YouTube or Hulu;
- peer-to-peer (P2P) downloads, such as torrents; or
- encrypted data, such as from VPN services.
- Charge you more: Freedom of information will come at a steep price. Ways ISPs could capitalize on the absence of Net Neutrality include:
- price gouging to steady increase overall rates;
- extra charges for certain sites, like Netflix, YouTube or even Gmail;
- extra charges for package deals, like access to video-streaming sites or adult content; or
- an exorbitant cost for unrestricted access or VPN usage.
- Charge businesses: ISPs could also:
- charge websites, such as Netflix, YouTube or Gmail, to be included on their network, which would drive up subscription costs, or if the sites don’t comply, prevent you from accessing the sites at all;
- drive away small businesses and startups that can’t afford to pay the inclusion fees;
- accept payment to block or throttle competitor websites or content the government doesn’t want you to see; or
- charge political parties for preferential deployment to customers.
But Would They?
That’s a fair question. Just because they theoretically could do those things, doesn’t mean they would do them. And that’s really Pai’s point…to basically let ISPs self-regulate. But in my experience, big corporations tend to be poor self-regulators when profit is to be had. I mean, look at the predatory lending practices or Well’s Fargo’s fake accounts and you’ll see what I mean. And these are illegal and/or grossly deceptive actions; what’s happening with the absence of Net Neutrality would be completely legal. So if corporations can’t self-regulate to stop illegal activities, why assume they can do so to stop legal ones?
The other argument people make, and one Pai alluded to, was that competition would prevent ISPs from employing such questionable practices for fear of driving customers to the competition. That’s also a fair point, but:
- In many areas, there’s only one ISP option: Imagine if your electric company started charging you 10 times the normal rate or only provided electricity at night. You certainly wouldn’t want to work with that company anymore, but where would you go? Are there other feasible options? In most cases, no. And that’s what many people are facing: If they don’t like their ISP, their options are to accept the cost or don’t have Internet.
- Corporations run on profit, not number of customers: There will be a balancing act to reap the maximum profit, even if that means driving away some of their customers. Let’s say a company currently charged $50 per month. Now, if they started using tiered pricing with add-ons (think cable TV where you have basic cable with additional expenses for premium channels or package deals), they might find they lose half their customers, but the ones that remain are paying on average $150 per month. That’s a huge win for them, because not only are they making 50% more per month, but they’ve also reduced their bandwidth expense. Plus, the ones who remain have already proven themselves susceptible to upselling and are likely financially better off, so there’s more potential for increased future profits.
Another thing to consider is the repeal itself. Why would the ISPs contribute over $100 million to congress members (as of Dec 2017) to repeal Net Neutrality, if they planned to act as if Net Neutrality was still in place? That would make no sense. You don’t pay that kind of money, exact that kind of pressure and continue paying for the fight if you don’t plan to benefit from it. Obviously, something’s coming, but we won’t see the full effects until things calm down: There’s just too much attention on them right now so they wouldn’t want to stir up any additional resistance until the fight is officially over.
And finally, they already have done it, some even before it was legal to do so:
- In 2008 courts ruled Comcast illegally throttled P2P connections;
- AT&T had Skype blocked on it’s network;
- Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile historically blocked Google Wallet;
- Wireless providers have already raised prices;
- Many states already require “obscenity filters” to block and tax adult content;
- Research has even shown that nearly all Internet providers are throttling video streaming services; and
- Some ISPs have gone so far as to block encryption.
So would they? Yes, if the best predictor of the future is the past, then they surely will.
The Scary Future
I sincerely hope I’m wrong, but the road we’re on is wrought with peril. It’s the path to censorship. It’s the path to losing our freedom of speech and our rights to unregulated information. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want any other person, company or government having control over what I can read online, what services I can use or what companies with whom I do business. That’s not a free or open Internet. It’s anything but. Absent what Pai described as “heavy-handed” government oversight of ISPs, the ISPs get heavy-handed control over us.
What Can Be Done?
Basically, contact your lawmakers via phone, email, social media, etc. Make your voice heard. The fight’s not over yet. Check out the Electronic Frontier Foundation for a guide to contacting your member of congress for more information on what to do.