The United States’ Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has defied the advice of experts and the wishes of most Americans. In a move that serves only to strengthen the stranglehold that large Internet Service Providers (ISPs) already exert over access to the internet, FCC chairman and former Verizon employee, Ajit Pai, has dealt the death blow to net neutrality in the US.
The Restoring Internet Freedom order surrenders FCC powers to enforce net neutrality to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). The FTC has so far proven to be an ineffectual watchdog, with little in the way of teeth when it comes to going after ISPs that flout the proposed ”light-touch, market-based” rules.
ISPs Like Pigs in the Mud
Indeed, even saying “rules” pushes the point, as there don't appear to be any hard lines for ISPs to cross. According to a draft FCC-FTC Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), ISPs will be required to make highly specific promises not to engage in certain kinds of anti-competitive or anti-consumer behavior.
If they break these promises, the FTC will be able to take action against them on the grounds of deceiving consumers. As Nilay Patel from The Verge, and former FCC Counselor Gigi Sohn have observed, however, this is unlikely to actually happen.
Companies change their terms of service all the time without the FCC becoming involved. Even it if it did intervene, the FTC can only respond in a reactive manner once damage has already been done. As FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn told Ars Technica,
“The agreement announced today between the FCC and FTC is a confusing, lackluster, reactionary afterthought: an attempt to paper over weaknesses in the Chairman’s draft proposal repealing the FCC’s 2015 net neutrality rules. Two years ago, the FCC signed a much broader pro-consumer agreement with the FTC that already covers this issue. There is no reason to do this again other than as a smoke-and-mirrors PR stunt, distracting from the FCC’s planned destruction of net neutrality protections later this week.”
Most tellingly, ISPs are not required to promise that they won’t block or throttle internet traffic, or charge websites and online services additional fees for “fast lane” internet access (with the attendant implication that any services not paying for a fast lane will be placed in slow lane).
What Can We Do?
The Republican-backed FCC has shown a staggering degree of self-interest and naked greed, at the expense of the interests of every ordinary American (and with alarming ramifications for consumers the world over).
A natural response might be to go out and drown your sorrows, but crying into your beer won't prevent your ISP from shafting you!
Use a Virtual Private Network (VPN)
A Virtual Private Network is a privacy and security tool that prevents your ISP from seeing what you get up to online. Your ISP can't see your data because it is encrypted. It also can't know which websites (etc.) you visit because all internet activity is routed through the VPN server. Your ISP can only see that you are connected to the VPN server, not which websites or services you visit after that.
And what an ISP cannot see, it cannot block or discriminate against (although see “Dangers” below). Using a VPN is a very effective way to counter moves by your ISP to end net neutrality.
Please see VPNs for Beginners for a detailed explanation of how VPNs work and what they can do for you. Please also see Five Best VPN Services for our pick of the best VPNs out there. These all serve US customers well and are effective at ensuring your own personal net neutrality - FCC and FTC be damned!
Using a VPN will also prevent your ISP from spying on your personal web browsing history and selling it.
VPNs Could Be Blocked
A VPN will prevent an ISP blocking or throttling your internet traffic - until such time as your ISP blocks or throttles all VPN traffic itself. Although such a move may seem like a no-brainer on the ISP’s part, it is, in fact, unlikely to happen.
A large number of businesses rely on VPN technology to secure communications between offices and to allow remote workers to access corporate LAN resources. If ISPs start blocking or throttling all VPN traffic, chaos would ensue and corporate interest would be damaged.
So it’s not going to happen. Even in the very unlikely event that it does, numerous ways to bypass VPN blocks have been developed.
A bigger danger is that, rather than blacklisting VPNs, ISPs will start to whitelist selected services. Customers will be targeted for special “cable-style” internet packages that only provide access to selected services and websites (or which only provide fast lane access to such).
At present, this threat is purely theoretical, which is just as well, since there is very little that can be done about it.
Unfortunately, it seems that ISPs are keen on taking this route in future. The best thing you can do as a consumer to prevent it is to refuse to pay for any package that doesn't give you unrestricted and full-speed access to the internet.
As a consumer you have power, so use it. In the meantime, use a VPN.