What’s Happening with Net Neutrality, Why You Should Care, and What You Can Do About It
By Amul Kalia
Take a look at the image below of AT&T’s mobile data packages in Mexico. Everything seems normal until you get about halfway down the image, and see that at a certain price range, some popular social media apps—Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, and Messenger allow for unlimited usage, exempt from the user data cap. Below it, there’s another higher cost tier where additional apps—Instagram, Uber, and Snapchat—also allow for unlimited usage. At first glance, this may seem like a good thing for consumers to have unlimited access to these apps, but there’s a problem here. By allowing only a few arbitrary companies’ traffic to be exempted from data caps, AT&T Mexico is discriminating between the traffic that’s flowing through its networks, violating net neutrality, one of the basic tenets of an open Internet.
Net neutrality is the idea that an Internet service provider (ISP), whether it’s Comcast for your home Internet or T-Mobile for your smartphone, cannot block, throttle, or prioritize between the Internet traffic that it handles. An ISP’s job is to deliver what the Internet user is asking for, and not decide what the user should get. Without an obligation to be neutral, ISPs will be motivated to discriminate between the traffic in ways that help their bottom line.
Like Instagram and Netflix? Your ISP may decide to charge you extra to use those services. Conversely, your ISP can exempt its own photo-sharing or streaming apps from your data cap making them an attractive option for consumers, and give itself an unfair advantage. It can also exempt big companies that decide to pay up from data caps. But what about the upstarts that want to break in to the market? They often don’t have the market power to be exempted from data caps or the capital to pay off the ISP to allow users to access the service. We, the consumers, will lose out on innovative new services in the absence of net neutrality.
Beyond competition that benefits consumers, non-neutral ISP practices can have broader societal impacts. In an example of an ISP behaving badly, the Canadian company Telus blocked a website that was supportive of its unionized workers’ strike against the company—catalyzing the net neutrality movement in that country. Conceivably, ISPs could also begin blocking or slowing access to content they don’t like—for example porn or forums dedicated to sex work—similar to the censorship credit card companies engage in. In this and many other contexts, net neutrality plays an important role in free speech and expression.
As everything we do moves online—from entertainment to online learning—we need to make sure that ISPs don’t mess with our Internet.
If you are with me so far, you’re probably pretty keen on not giving ISPs the power to control what content you see online and support net neutrality. Right? Well, there’s some bad news: Trump’s FCC happened.
What’s Going on at the FCC?
After millions of internet users spoke out in favor of net neutrality, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the regulatory agency in-charge of telecommunications policy in America, adopted strong net neutrality rules under it’s 2015 Open Internet Order. Though the rules weren’t perfect, they were a huge win for Internet access in America.
Among other things, the rules expressly prevented ISPs from blocking, throttling, and paid prioritization of Internet traffic flowing through the network. ISPs couldn’t degrade consumer access to services that competed with its own, and couldn’t give one company’s traffic priority over another if it had been paid off to do so.
Under the Trump’s administration’s sophisticated, nuanced, and totally not “let’s-just-undo-everything-Obama-did” policy goals, the adopted net neutrality rules are in danger. Trump’s pick to lead the FCC, Chairman Ajit Pai, a former Verizon lawyer, has put forth a plan that essentially wholesale reverses the previously enacted rules.
Specifically, the plan eliminates rules against blocking, throttling, and prioritizing traffic in favor of an inadequate regulatory regime where all an ISP is required to do is be transparent about its practices. It also reclassifies high speed broadband to an “information service,” which would make it harder for the FCC to regulate the industry. And on top of that, the transparency requirements are weak and it’s unclear how the FCC would even enforce them.
Suffice to say, if adopted, they are bad news for net neutrality in the United States and hand over the Internet to companies that have their own profits’ best interests at heart.
You Can Do Something About It!
I know the last paragraph ended on a grim note, but not all is lost and you can fight back!
The rules proposed by Commissioner Pai have not been voted on yet by the rest of the FCC, and right now is a crucial time to call your Congressional representatives. The FCC is still accountable to Congress, so Congress has some pressure to exert on the agency.
Join the hundreds of thousands of people calling Congress using this tool set up by organizations fighting for net neutrality: https://www.battleforthenet.com/
Additionally, the organizers behind Battle for the Net are holding protests at Verizon stores nationwide on December 7th. It’s the perfect opportunity to send a message to ISPs that you won’t roll over and let them take the Internet away without a fight. The next couple weeks are crucial for the future of the Internet and the time to take action is now.
The author of this article is an expert in the field and works for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an organization that defends civil liberties in a digital world.