By Jesse Schooff
June 9, 2017
Article from Jesse Schooff
What would the web be like without Net Neutrality?
I agree with John Oliver: it can be hard to get people who aren’t techheads excited about net neutrality.
If you don’t know, put very simply, net neutrality is the principle is that all internet traffic should be treated equally, regardless of whose network is carrying it. In practice, it means that your ISP doesn’t get to manipulate which sites are the fastest, and which ones are slowed to a crawl. During his tenure as chairman of the United States Federal Communication Commission (FCC), Tom Wheeler went from being a former telecom lobbyist to an outspoken champion of net neutrality. Under Wheeler, the FCC enacted landmark protection policies for net neutrality in the United States. Unfortunately, Wheeler’s replacement, Chairman Ajit Pai, has been quite vocal about his intention to roll back pretty much all of Wheeler’s accomplishments in this regard.
ISPs and telecoms have been major opponents of net neutrality, simultaneously arguing to government that it will hurt their investment in infrastructure, all the while telling investors that it won’t diminish their investment. ISPs want the right to be able to throttle (slow down), block, or even modify traffic passing through their networks. This practice would allow ISPs to extort big fees from any sites or services on the Internet who need visitors to be able to access them quickly and reliably. It takes a little bit of imagination to fully realize what’s possible under such a status quo, and it isn’t good.
Here’s a handful of horrific scenarios which are possible, and perhaps even likely, if net neutrality is repealed in the United States:
The Death of Internet-Based Startups and Small Businesses
Etsy, Foursquare, GitHub, and Imgur were among the 800 startups who signed an open letter to the FCC, saying that killing net neutrality will kill them as well. That’s because without net neutrality, ISPs would be able to influence traffic speeds; and by result, give preference to their own services, kill potential competitors, and demand money from startups for better traffic speeds. For tech startups, who depend on having unfettered internet access to their customers, this could mean the difference between life and death.
So without net neutrality, it will be more difficult, if not impossible, for small businesses and startups to gain a foothold in the tech industry. It’s little wonder that many have called the potential rollback of net neutrality a huge blow to U.S. innovation.
The End of Alternative Video Sites
Part of the reason we know ISPs will interfere with the traffic speeds of startups is by looking at the early days of Netflix, where ISPs actively throttled Netflix traffic as punishment for its excessive use of bandwidth. These days, Netflix isn’t as concerned about net neutrality because big players like Netflix, Amazon, and YouTube have their own content distribution networks and agreements with the individual ISPs, and because customers expect ISPs to make sure access to such sites is fast.
Less certain is the fate of the many other specialty video sites that have popped up over the years. Without their own network infrastructure, or the big money to forge agreements with ISPs, smaller video sharing and specialty-channel sites could face grim a future.
Your ISP Forcing their Crappy Clones Down Your Throat
Building on the previous two points is the possibility that your ISP will play favourites by advancing their own services. We’ve already seen this with zero-rating, which is where an ISP or cell carrier offers a service that doesn’t count towards your monthly data cap. AT&T’s DirecTV streaming and T-Mobile’s BingeOn are recent examples of ISPs giving their own products preferential treatment, meaning less choice and flexibility for customers.
Since your ISPs are the gatekeepers between you and the Internet, there are few limits to what online industries the ISPs could affect. Without net neutrality provisions, ISPs could both zero-rate and optimize the speed of their own services, while throttling any competitors’ services.
Yes, Even More Advertising
The ubiquitous and unremitting nature of ads on the Internet have prompted many to install ad-blocking software in order to retain their sanity. But ISPs have also been known to hijack our HTTP connections to put even more advertisements on top of pages. These “HTTP injection advertisements” cheat both the website and the reader (since they benefit neither). Ads are invariably put on top of existing ads in a flashing, garish, mess of distraction which obscures the very content the reader came for in the first place. Net neutrality’s “hands off” regulation implicitly prohibited this kind of traffic interference. Without net neutrality, ISPs may decide that injection ads are worth bringing back.
Active Suppression of Free Speech
Companies are always merging, and finding novel new ways to make money. So one wonders, what happens in a post-net-neutrality world when someone publishes an article or blog post that’s highly critical of a company? What if that company has the same parent corporation as a major ISP?
All the other issues on this list are important, but this is the worst-case scenario. Using our imagination, if United Airlines and Verizon had been owned by the same company, Verizon would have had an enormous impetus to slow down access to videos and articles covering the story of David Dao (who was forcibly removed from an overbooked United Airlines flight). Without net neutrality, we’re handing over the keys to our free speech to a select few companies. The temptation to abuse this power in the name of PR spin may be irresistable.
A Useless Internet That’s Basically the New Cable TV
It’s difficult not to ascribe the strident anti-net neutrality positions of America’s ISPs to their foundations as cable companies and telcos. Once able to charge highly-tiered rates for premium cable packages and long-distance plans, being relegated to “dumb pipes” (as many have termed Internet service) must be an incredibly difficult pill to swallow.
With that in mind, a future rife with highly-tiered Internet access isn’t hard to imagine. Want faster access to Vimeo or Crunchyroll? You’ll need an extra “Channels” package. Is your connection to XBox Live and Blizzard lacking? Try our Gamer Add-Ons package! Need to use a VPN to access your workplace? Enabling those TCP/IP ports costs extra. Want to access our competitor’s streaming video service so you can watch that must-see show with death and dragons? Oh, we’ve got a premium level package for you…
In a country where many Americans still don’t even have more than one option for a broadband ISP in their neighbourhood, giving ISPs all the power over how they’ll handle online traffic is an outrageous blank cheque. The free market can’t police itself when there’s no competition for consumers to switch to. Seven years ago, U.S. Senator Al Franken called net neutrality the foremost free-speech issue of our time. It’s still true today, and American net neutrality needs your support.
That’s why digital rights groups, innovators, civil society organizations and citizens from across the U.S. are once again coming together en masse to make their voices heard at the FCC. Already more than two million comments have been submitted, and on July 12th, dozens of organizations will join together for an Internet day of action.
Visit OpenMedia’s new campaign site, The Internet Fights Back, and add your voice to the ever-growing chorus of American citizens who are demanding strong and enforceable net neutrality provisions remain on the books.
Jesse Schooff is a Volunteer Content Creator for OpenMedia. Born in Toronto and raised in Vancouver, Jesse studied music composition at UBC. For the past 13 years he has been the systems administrator and IT help desk for a small Canadian company. He has a lifelong passion for politics and technology, and is a vocal advocate of tech security, digital rights, and the open internet. You can read more of his stuff on his blog at GeekMan.ca.
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