Net Neutrality

Speed bumps on the information superhighway.

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Consider yourself on the road. Consider yourself part of a traffic jam. You’re moving, sure, but you’re in a thick soup of bumper-to-bumper mayhem with nothing but tailpipes to the left and road rage to the right. But wait; up ahead, the road widens. A luxury sedan whips down the open road. Then another. And another. But hang on, you’re not allowed. It’s for first-class customers only.

A crude analogy, but it captures the gist of the ongoing net neutrality debate pretty well. Should the Internet remain as it is, “neutral,” open to all and free from interference by third parties, no matter who you are, what equipment you’ve got, or what content you’re uploading or downloading? Or should it be stratified and layered, filtered and prioritized, with one lane for you and me and a hyper-mega-fast lane for those who can cough up the cash?

Until recently, such questions have been academic. Since its development, the Internet has long been considered (if not explicitly declared) to be subject to “common carrier” rules: much like the canals, public roads and railways of yesteryear, a network of vital importance to not only commerce, but to the function of society itself. But back in January of this year, the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia stripped the U.S. Federal Communications Commission of the ability to apply such rules to all things online. While the ruling hinged on a technicality (specifically, the legal difference between “information service providers” and “telecommunications carriers”), its implications are anything but narrow.

To internet service providers (ISPs), the decision was nothing less than a truckload of manna sent from the god of deregulation. Without common carrier rules to weigh them down, the ISP clique (AT&T, Verizon, Comcast, and others) are free to enact a pay-for-speed pricing structure to their customers. Theoretically, they’re also free to block, slow, or otherwise manipulate data to prevent access to sites critical to their respective corporations, for example, or to intentionally slow down access on customers’ behalf. Such “traffic shaping” could end up being the mother of all revenue generators: consider what Big Blue Bank might pay not only to speed up service to their own website, but to “throttle” traffic headed to Big Red Bank, Big Green Bank, and Big Light Blue Bank.

Never happen, you say? News flash: similar stuff already has. Back in 2007, Comcast was found to have illegally inhibited users from accessing file-sharing site BitTorrent. In 2007, Verizon prohibited members of a pro-choice group from using a text-messaging program. Going back a little further, Canada’s Telus Corporation blocked access to a community site operated by one of its unions while in the middle of a strike. True, such abuses weren’t necessarily motivated by commerce. But it demonstrates the immense power of the ISPs to determine who gets to travel where (and how fast) on the information superhighway.

If such limits rub you the wrong way, you’ve got company. As of the start of August, John Q. Public has submitted over 1.1 million comments to the FCC under its “open hearing” provisions. Big-name companies such as Google, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft, Netflix, and others have also given the FCC an earful. You could do worse than to go over and write them an email yourself—that is, before someone tries to slow you down.

Photo by InvisibleKid2007 via Flickr.


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September 16, 2014