The internet as we know it is in grave danger. The United States’ Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is planning to surrender the powers it currently has to enforce net neutrality rules on Internet Service Providers (ISPs).
This will consolidate the power of big businesses, stifle innovation, and pave the way towards a two-tiered internet where only the wealthy can afford unrestricted access to this game-changing technology. It is a move that is in no-one’s interest except for the United States’ big name ISPs, who have lobbied hard for the changes.
On July 12, Amazon, Reddit, Mozilla, StartPage, ProPrivacy.com and many other internet companies are joining net neutrality activists for an "internet-wide day of action to save net neutrality." The campaign is organized by the Fight for the Future (FFTF) digital rights advocacy group.
What Is Net Neutrality?
Net neutrality is the idea that all internet traffic is treated equally by ISPs and governments. It means “not discriminating or charging differentially by user, content, site, platform, application, type of attached equipment, and modes of communication.”
It is a cornerstone of innovation and free expression on the internet. Without net neutrality, the internet simply would not have been the success that it is. Without net neutrality:
- ISPs can discriminate against rival services. For example by throttling (or even blocking) content providers such as Netflix, Facebook and Google, while giving customers unlimited, prioritized access to their own services.
- Innovation is stifled. Netflix, Facebook and Google can probably afford to pay ISPs to supply increased bandwidth for their services. Start-up companies, however, will be unable to do this. This will effectively leave small, innovative companies dead in the water, while strengthening the monopolistic stranglehold that large, established companies have on the internet.
- There is nothing to prevent ISPs from throttling or even completely censoring content on political, social, or religious grounds.
- The internet will become fragmented into two or more “tiers.” Less well-off customers will be targeted for special “cable-style” internet packages that only provide access to selected services. Unrestricted access to the internet will only be made available to those who can afford to pay for it. This will deepen the digital divide and lead to increased economic and social inequality.
In other words, big money will be permitted to ride roughshod over the interests of the common people.
Why Is It in Grave Danger?
In 2014 a similar attempt was made to dismantle net neutrality, but the FCC was forced to perform a u-turn. Former FCC chairman Tom Wheeler, an ex-telecoms industry lobbyist, showed little appetite for saving net neutrality after a court ruling invalidated existing rules.
Following a massive grass-roots campaign by internet activists, the FCC opened its proposals up to public comment. After over four million comments were received, causing the FCC website to crash twice, Wheeler gave in.
The FCC moved to protect net neutrality by classifying the internet as a Title II Utility. This brought Internet Service Providers under the FCC’s control and allowed it to introduce clear and reasonably strict net neutrality rules.
The FCC, however, now has a new Republican chairman who was appointed by Donald Trump. Ajit Pai is a former Verizon lobbyist, and his antipathy for industry regulation is well known. He has in the past described the FCC’s existing net neutrality rules as a “mistake,” and now wants to reverse Wheeler’s 2014 decision.
What Is Pai Proposing Instead?
Pai wants to reclassify broadband as a “Title I Information Service,” meaning that rules around blocking, throttling, and paid prioritization would essentially disappear. As a Title I service, the internet would fall under the authority of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) instead of the FCC.
The FTC, however, would have very few teeth in this role. The currently published Notice for Proposed Rulemaking (.pdf) is strikingly unclear on some major issues. Expert observers expect that instead of the current enforceable rules, ISPs will be asked to make voluntary, non-binding commitments to the principle of net neutrality.
In theory, the FTC could go after ISPs that do not honor these promises, on the grounds that they have misled customers. As Nilay Patel from The Verge, and former FCC Counsellor Gigi Sohn observe, however, this is unlikely to actually happen.
Companies change their terms of service all the time without the FTC becoming involved. Even it if it did intervene, the FTC could only respond in a reactive manner once damage had already been done.
Furthermore, it is far from clear that under Pai’s proposals ISPs will actually be required to make any such promises! As Consumer Privacy Expert and StartPage.com spokesperson Liz McIntyre observed to us,
“ISPs like Verizon and AT&T have ridden roughshod over voluntary 'Do Not Track' requests. We'd be idiots to trust them with voluntary net neutrality."
In at least a token show of listening to consumers, the FCC has invited the US public to comment on its proposals. What has become abundantly clear, however, is that it has little intention of heeding the results of this consultation. In fact, its attitude towards the entire process has been quite scandalous. Examples include:
- Up to 20% of comments received by the FCC appear to be have been submitted by spam bots using identities obtained via an online data breach. When some of those who were impersonated (or their relatives, in the case that comments were ostensibly submitted by people who were dead) complained, the FCC chose to ignore them and treat the comments as valid.
- After comedian and TV host John Oliver encouraged viewers to comment in support of net neutrality, the FCC website crashed. This resulted in a large number of pro-net neutrality comments being lost. The FCC blamed a distributed denial of service (DDoS) cyberattack for the rather convenient incident, but declined to provide any evidence to back up this claim.
- Despite overwhelming support for net neutrality in the comments, Ajit Pai chose to single out one letter sent by 19 nonprofit municipal broadband providers in support of the proposed changes. The vast majority of small ISPs have, however, urged Pai to keep Title II protections in place.
In short, it seems that Ajit Pai and the FCC are determined to push ahead with their plans to gut net neutrality, regardless of mass public opposition to the idea.
It Is Time to Fight Back!
Net neutrality only exists in the US because of mass mobilization by net neutrality activists in 2014. This proves that the FCC can be forced to listen if enough people show enough concern over the issue.
This is why ProPrivacy.com has joined a long list of other internet companies to become an official participant in Fight for the Future’s Battle for the Internet day on July 12, 2017.
The intention is to raise public awareness of this crucial issue, and to encourage all US readers to register their views on the FCC’s website. Indeed, if you are a US citizen who has not already done so, please do it now! The FCC is taking comments on its net neutrality proposals until August 16.
We also think it important that international readers be aware of what is going on in the United Stares. After all, around 80% of all internet traffic passes through US ISPs. In addition to this, ISPs and governments the world over are watching developments in the US with keen interest.
This is an important battle for every single internet user, and its consequences will be far-reaching. We therefore ask everyone who is able, to contribute in any way they can. One way to do this is to share either this article or the official Battle for the Internet web page on your social media accounts in order to spread the word. After all, the more noise we make, the more likely the FCC is to back down!