What is Net Neutrality, Why it’s Important, and What Could Happen if it’s Repealed
Water, Electricity, Internet
It’s time to choose your monthly water bill! Would you like to buy the kitchen sink package? That’s $10/month. The shower package? That’s $15/month. The 3-sink-combo package? That’s $20/month.
Luckily that is not how you pay for your water bill because water is a public utility. We wouldn’t even consider that as an option. You can pick whichever water “apps” you want to use the water with.
What about your electricity bill? Want electricity for a fridge? That’s $5/month. Electricity for your lights? $10/month. Oh, you want to get electricity for whatever appliance you want? You’ll have to pay extra for that.
This way of purchasing electricity sounds crazy today. But actually, this same debate about whether the internet should be regulated as a public utility happened about a century ago with electricity. A hundred years later, it’s clear that electricity is a public utility. Today, it’s also clear that the internet should be regulated as a public utility.
At it’s simplest level, the debate going on right now about the new FCC proposal to roll back net neutrality provisions set in 2015 that set the internet as a public utility. The FCC votes on December 14th, 2017.
Technically in 2015, the FCC classified internet as a “common carrier,” not “information provider,” so it is subject to Title II of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 and not Title I. This Telecommunications Act was the first big change since the Communications Act of 1934.
People who support net neutrality (including me), think the internet should be regulated as a public utility, and the ISPs (Internet Service Providers), should treat the data on the internet the same. People against net neutrality support all sorts of dubious arguments which I will review.
What is Net Neutrality?
Here’s the definition from Wikipedia:
Net neutrality is the principle that Internet service providers must treat all data on the Internet the same, and not discriminate or charge differently by user, content, website, platform, application, type of attached equipment, or method of communication. For instance, under these principles, internet service providers are unable to intentionally block, slow down or charge money for specific websites and online content.
In our water and electricity analogy, it means you can use whatever appliance you want with the electricity to your house. It means you don’t have to buy a separate bundle for your sink and your shower.
On the internet, it means you can pick what sites you visit on the internet, those sites are treated fairly at the infrastructure level, and there aren’t advantages or pay-to-play schemes with companies. It means the internet isn’t sold in bundles like TV and cable packages.
Violations of net neutrality manifest themselves in many ways, but they have already happened in the past and present and are not hypothetical.
So the main laws in the discussion are the Communications Act of 1934 and the Telecommunications Act of 1996. The Telecommunications Act set out Title I (to regulate information services) and Title II (to regulate common carriers).
The 2015 FCC classification set broadband internet to be regulated under Title II, which means it is a “common carrier.” This effectively is what is supporting net neutrality in the US.
Now, Title II also has many other provisions, several which are anti-competitive provisions among ISPs, some which are privacy protections for consumers, and some which set rules around physical access to share infrastructure access. There’s more, but those are a few.
Same Story, 100 Years Ago
To understand what’s happening, you can see that on one side the large ISPs like Comcast are lobbying to overturn net neutrality despite any publicly stated ads to the contrary. ISPs and Mr. Pai say that the overregulation of ISPs has stifled innovation and competition. Actually, it’s a giveaway to ISPs that hurts consumers. It may sound like a new debate — should the internet be regulated as a utility? But this same debate happened a century ago.
From the book Captive Audience: The Telecom Industry and Monopoly Power in the New Gilded Age, Susan Crawford writes:
Private electrical companies consolidated, wielded enormous influence in state and national legislatures, cherry-picked their markets, and mounted huge campaigns against publicly owned electrical utilities, calling them “un-American.” At the beginning of the twentieth century, private power companies electrified only the most lucrative population centers and ignored most of America, particularly rural America. Predictably, the private utilities claimed that public ownership of electrical utilities was “costly and dangerous” and “always a failure.” [source]
Funny, sounds like a familiar argument. However, with the benefit of hindsight we can clearly see the argument espoused by the electric companies against being considered a utility are not the common viewpoint today. Everyone should be able to get electricity, because it’s a public utility. And because it’s a natural monopoly, there are certain regulations to help serve the public good.
It’s easy to see the story with the internet today shares parallels with electricity. The next generation will believe innately that the internet is a public utility just like it’s pretty difficult for me to imagine water and electricity not as a utility.
The Key Players
There are a few keys players to know about to understand what is happening.
Ajit Pai is the chairman of the FCC. He was nominated by Trump, and very unsurprisingly, was a high level lawyer at Verizon working on regulatory issues. He is against net neutrality.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is an agency to regulate communications created by the Communications Act of 1934. There are 5 commissioners, who will be the ones voting, and 3 are Republican and 2 are Democrats.
The large internet service providers (ISPs) are the big companies that provide internet to most of the country. The top 6 providers account for 92% of broadband (25 Mb/s connections) in the US [source]. These are the main bad guys lobbying to remove the net neutrality rules. This includes ISPs like Comcast, AT&T and Verizon.
How does the US Internet Stack Up?
A central part of the argument advocated by people trying to overturn net neutrality is an amorphous idea that it prevents innovation. To understand that, let’s take a look at where the internet is at today.
73% of US adults have broadband internet at home [source]. 63% of US adults in rural communizes have broadband internet [source]. Pew finds that “racial minorities, older adults, rural residents, and those with lower levels of education and income are less likely to have broadband service at home.” 53% of adults with incomes under $30,000 have access to home broadband [source].
For high speed internet, over 25 Mb/s, 75% of US homes have 1 option at most, usually Comcast, Time Warner, AT&T or Verizon [source].
And the deals for US to get decent high speed internet in major cities are consistently worse than many other other countries. You could expect to pay half the price in London or Seoul for 25 Mb/s internet.
However, when people refer to “innovation” in internet, they could be referring to fiber adoption, something like Google Fiber — 1000 megabits per second, or 1 gigabit per second. That’s really, really fast. If you have a normal Comcast connection a gigabit connection is likely 50 times faster, not just a little faster. That means if something takes an hour for it to download for you, it would take about a minute on a gigabit connection.
And we can see, the US has lagged behind in innovation. Japan and South Korea have fiber adoption at over 70% while in the US it is at 11%.
In other countries you can get internet many times better for prices that are many times less. It is not inaccurate to say the internet in some other countries like South Korea is an order of magnitude better than the US.
You can see on this map the status of net neutrality laws around the country. I wanted to find a resource with more detailed information on net neutrality by country, and couldn’t find one, so I started a spreadsheet here (which you can contribute to).
Right now you can see Europe and South Korea — countries with significantly better broadband internet and fiber access than the US, have net neutrality. So it’s not the net neutrality that’s the issue. Just as clearly, you can see which countries don’t protect net neutrality: China and Russia. China is known as a major censor of the internet — the “great firewall” — and Russia’s essentially authoritarian government is known to have lots of propaganda and be hostile towards free speech. Great company for this new net neutrality repeal, right?
What Could Happen Without Net Neutrality
What could happen if net neutrality is repealed? Opponents claim the downsides are hypothetical and exaggerated. It’s clear from how the internet works in other countries and the past behavior of ISP’s it is neither.
There’s many instances where ISPs have violated net neutrality, so the consequences of this decision are very real. In 2005 ISPs blocked VOIP. In 2005, Comcast blocked peer-to-peer traffic on BitTorrent. From 2007–2009 AT&T forced Apple to block Skype. In 2011 an ISP blocked streaming video. In 2012 Verizon blocked tethering from your phone. Verizon stated in court in 2013 they were exploring paid prioritization. [source]
We can also look to other countries to see what the internet would be like without net neutrality. See New Zealand for example, where ISPs bundle internet application services like a TV provider.
It’s not hard to see that these passes are bad for most internet small businesses. This would be a major step backward for your internet access. It seems to be the case that most people against net neutrality don’t realize this.
Something I couldn’t find great sources on online was about airplane WiFi and net neutrality. It seems to violate net neutrality as it provides a similar sort of bundling.
Mr. Pai and the ISPs are Peddling Misinformation
The FCC announcement is named in both a facetious and Orwellian way entitled “Restoring Internet Freedom.”
He is deliberately peddling misinformation to confuse the public, and argues that the public would benefit from the repeal of these rules when it is not the case.
Mr. Pai said, “Under my proposal, the federal government will stop micromanaging the internet.” [source] As the New York Times reports:
Under the new plan, broadband providers will be able to block access, slow down or speed up service for its business partners in some cases — as long as they notify customers. [source]
China is a country that micromanages the internet. As is Russia. Net neutrality prevents governments from micromanaging the internet since all data is treated equally and people are not blocked at the infrastructure level. This is a deliberately misleading claim that Mr. Pai is spreading.
The FCC put out a Myth vs. Fact sheet which is itself full of misleading statements. There was fraud in the FCC comment process, with stolen identities used to submit statements against net neutrality. The New York State Attorney general submitted a letter, which was ignored [source]. Data analysis has also shown it is likely more than a million pro-repeal net neutrality comments were fake.
I used natural language processing techniques to analyze net neutrality comments submitted to the FCC from April…hackernoon.com
Pai’s comments are like trying to distract you by throwing a ball in the air and then throwing one quickly right at you. He presents an argument that’s remotely plausible but on the whole is actually deceptive.
Comcast and other ISPs have also been misleading. This ad was promoted significantly on social media
As I mentioned above, they’ve already done this repeatedly. Without these laws in place, they’d likely do it again. They’ve also repeatedly behaved in anti-competitive ways, trying to prevent improvements to broadband infrastructure. Their lobbying efforts have had a negative impact on the American public. Additionally, they’ve been dubbed the “worst company in America,” because actually — everyone hates Comcast. [source]
Comcast also recently updated their net neutrality stance on their website and removed the pledge not to do paid prioritization. [source] This was removed the day after the new FCC plan was announced.
Cool. So they’ve made it pretty clear that they will both throttle traffic and create internet paid fast lanes. Again, not hypothetical. To create more confusion, they say they support net neutrality. Actually, they’ve lobbied millions of dollars against it.
The Arguments Against Net Neutrality
What, if any, are the arguments against net neutrality? Pai has said that without net neutrality there would be greater investment and innovation. He says it’s better for small ISPs. You can see the letter below that many small ISPs signed on that this actually hurts small ISPs.
The best analogy here is to think about software patent law. While the stated goal of software patent law is to protect the little guys, the actual effect is exactly the opposite. Patent trolls often go after small companies, and only larger companies have the war chests to acquire the patents.
With small ISPs, net neutrality levels the playing field as a small local player wouldn’t be able to make a major revenue deal with a large technology company.
The issue with US internet that is identified correctly is lack of competition. However, it should strike you as suspicious that the lobbyist advocates of this new regulation are the monopoly broadband providers. These rules benefit them, and almost no one else.
I’ll also recommend you go on twitter to view the #NoNetNeutrality hashtagto see what people are saying who don’t support net neutrality.
Net neutrality is what keeps the government out of your internet.
Well, a lot of them look like this. It’s very sad actually. It’s a plot by Obama to take over the internet. It’s the same thing as “keep your government hands out of my medicare.” Unfortunately, people on this hashtag have it backwards. Net neutrality is what keeps the government out of your internet. It also keeps the ISPs out of your internet. And let’s you not get blocked from the internet. I can only hope that in the future people will learn more about how the internet works and then can apply critical thinking to understand the issue themselves. (Note: We teach this stuff at CodeHS — how the internet works, impacts of the internet, and hopefully soon more on net neutrality.)
Government or Competition? Good Internet Needs Both
So, one thing that has happened in this debate, as it happens in many political debates, is issues have been conflated. Should there be government? Or should there be competition? Good internet needs both. You can read about how in France the government has fostered competition for internet. You can see how in South Korea, the government has been a major player in creating the best internet access worldwide.
The issue here is people think supporting net neutrality means you don’t support competition. The main broadband providers in the US are anti-competitive and have prevented innovative competition. It’s their lobbying efforts that have pushed these latest rules. Net neutrality is about treating the data equally. It is bundled together now in the debate with how to create better competition. However, on the whole it’s clear that the current policy repeal being advocated by the FCC is bad for consumers, and bad for pretty much everyone, except a few ISPs.
As a person who has built many sites on the internet and knows many people who also have I don’t know a single person who supports this.
What Can You Do?
1. Get Informed
Read this post to get informed — read the links, and read the primary sources, and tell people you know! I believe if people understood how things actually worked they would realize how fleeced they are getting by the ISPs and FCC.
2. Leave a Comment to the FCC
You can submit a comment here to the FCC (takes 3 minutes) https://www.fcc.gov/ecfs/search/proceedings?q=name:((17-108)) (short link at gofccyourself.com)
I support net neutrality. Do not roll back the current rules. Preventing ISPs and the internet from being regulated as a public utility is bad for citizens, bad for small businesses, and bad for an open internet.
3. Influence the Company You Work at That This Issue Matters
Companies have money and large email lists that they can use to influence issues like this. Most people support net neutrality.
Ok — now you know what’s going on. And if you want to learn more, read the links below.
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References and Resources for Further Reading
I’ve compiled a collaborative spreadsheet at thekeesh.com/netneutrality to help centralize information and resources about net neutrality by country. At the moment the Wikipedia page only lists a handful of countries. Feel free to leave a comment to add notes or contribute.
Sheet1 Country, Has Net Neutrality?, Notes, Link 1, Link 2 Afghanistan( AF) Åland Islands( AX) Albania( AL) Algeria( DZ…docs.google.com
Until 2015, there were no clear legal protections requiring net neutrality. Throughout 2005 and 2006, corporations…en.wikipedia.org
A widely cited example of a violation of net neutrality principles was the Internet service provider Comcast’s secret…en.wikipedia.org
Wikipedia net neutrality law: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Net_neutrality_law
After years of speeches and protests, you probably have the gist of the arguments for net neutrality: Don’t mess with…www.fastcompany.com
The open Internet has fostered unprecedented creativity, innovation and access to knowledge and to other kinds of…www.thisisnetneutrality.org
NYC Attorney General on fraud in the net neutrality comment process
Data Analysis on comment process fraud
I used natural language processing techniques to analyze net neutrality comments submitted to the FCC from April…hackernoon.com
Whoa! The internet is angry. Twitter, Reddit, Facebook, YouTube — everyone seems to be talking about net neutrality…medium.com
The Web market was never really free – those who succeeded were able to do so because they had an initial leg up. By…psmag.com
While the nation continues to make progress in broadband deployment, many Americans still lack access to advanced, high…www.fcc.gov
In the United States, the Federal Communications Commission in 2002 reclassified high-speed Internet access as an information service, which is unregulated, rather than as telecommunications, which is regulated. Its hope was that Internet providers would compete with one another to provide the best networks. That didn’t happen. The result has been that they have mostly stayed out of one another’s markets.
“It’s just very simple economics,” said Tim Wu, a professor at Columbia Law School who studies antitrust and…www.nytimes.com
This list of countries by Internet connection speed lists the average data transfer rates for Internet access by end…en.wikipedia.org
Information on Small ISPs:
Net neutrality is meant to prevent internet giants like Comcast, Verizon, and AT&T from wielding their huge networks as…www.theverge.com
Many Small ISPs Support Real Net Neutrality One excuse FCC Chairman Ajit Pai regularly offers to explain his effort to…www.eff.org
Almost two dozen smaller ISPs have told FCC chairman Ajit Pai that the FCC’s 2015 Open Internet order reclassifying…www.broadcastingcable.com
Title II, Section 224 provides non-discriminatory access to poles, among other things
An entity that obtains an attachment to a pole, conduit, or right-of-way shall not be required to bear any of the costs…www.law.cornell.edu
TELECOMMUNICATIONS ACT OF 1996
Internet in France
Internet in South Korea
South Korea is the world leader in Internet connectivity, having the world’s fastest average internet…en.wikipedia.org
Blogs International The average South Korean can choose between three major private internet providers -SKT, KT and LG…www.publicknowledge.org
Europe’s telecommunications regulator has published final guidelines on how the EU will implement net neutrality rules…www.theverge.com
Each report intends to reflect the situation during a specific period. The year of the report is the year the report…en.wikipedia.org
My first glimpse of a world without strong protections for net neutrality was in 2004, when I was part of the team that…www.nytimes.com