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Net Neutrality: Round 2

If you’re getting a sense of déjà vu after hearing about this net neutrality thing being mentioned in the news and online you aren’t alone. The war over this topic has been raging since the Internet has been commercially available with both sides winning and losing battles. Most recently in 2014 the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the independent agency tasked with regulating interstate communications on the radio, television, wire, satellite, and cable drafted a new provision that would end the war once and forever.

But before we get into all of that it’s important to know what net neutrality actually is and why it’s important.

What having a neutral Internet means

Net neutrality is the practice of giving everyone involved in online communications a level, or neutral, playing field. It promises that all data is given the same treatment regardless of the user, content, website, application and other factors. It’s essentially a non-discriminatory agreement for data.

The reason why this is important is that some Internet service providers (or ISP like Comcast, Verizon, Cox Cable etc.) have skin in the game in areas other than simply providing Internet access. If there is no neutrality online, they can use their position as providers the skew the odds in their favor. In fact, there have already been cases where ISP have been caught doing just that.

In 2012, AT&T was caught slowing, or throttling, data for the Apple application FaceTime. The obvious advantage being that if users couldn’t use the alternative calling method or found it unbearably slow or unreliable they would be forced to use AT&T’s services instead- in turn lining AT&T’s pockets. This throttling didn’t affect all of AT&T’s customers, only those who were not on the more expensive shared data plan saw their FaceTime chats affected.

Other examples of breeches of net neutrality include Comcast throttling uploads for peer-to-peer file sharing (e.g. BitTorrent) in 2007, and virtual private networks (VPN) being unfairly targeted by both Cox Cable and Comcast.

This doesn’t mean the ISP’s hands are tied when it comes to managing the flow of data- especially during peak usage. The FCC does have guidelines to allow ISPs to manage congestion, they only have to do it fairly without unnecessarily targeting certain platforms, apps, websites, or content.

What the Internet without net neutrality would look like

The net neutrality violations mentioned above might seem trivial to some, but the actions taken by the ISPs do have a real world effect on real, everyday people like you and I. Abandoning neutrality online would certainly open the floodgates for ISPs to bolster their bottom line while at the same time adversely affecting online use for everyone who uses the Internet in the US. Websites and content providers, such as YouTube and Google for example, would be forced pay your ISP and abide by rules established by them to ensure their website will have access to ‘the fast lane.’ This would prevent smaller websites and those wishing to enter the market from being competitively viable because they simply wouldn’t be able to ‘pay to play.’

This problem would be made worse by the monopoly that ISPs have over large sections of the US. The danger is that a most Americans have only one option for broadband, meaning users in Kansas, who can virtually only choose Cox Communications, or users in Georgia who can only use Comcast having their Internet throttled or denied completely when trying to access certain content or websites.

If you think this is a bit outlandish, it’s already common practice in another common communication medium: SMS messaging. Because SMS is not covered under common carriage protection (the telephone equivalent of net neutrality) providers have blocked messages for arbitrary reasons. As TechCrunch reported in 2014, messages have been blocked for referencing alcohol and even Urban Dictionary.  If the Internet loses its neutrality we could see people in California lose the ability to view content from right wing political sources, or those in Georgia from seeing left wing sources.

America’s new favorite pastime, Netflix, isn’t exempt from this unfair treatment. In 2014, they entered into an agreement with Comcast to improve connection speeds after they noticed a 25% percent degrees from the previous year. Subsequently, they saw they a 66% increase in connections speeds.

The ISPs want to do away with net neutrality as an easy way to monetize their subscriber base which they have a monopoly over: with no limit on how much they could charge for ‘fast lane’ (which only the biggest content providers could afford) or even access at all.

The new battle

On April 26, 2017 the FCC chairman, Ajit Pai, announced that he wanted to step away from his agency’s Title II classifcation- a special category created specifically to regulate ISPs to ensure net neutrality. It isn’t perfect but it is the closest thing to net neutrality available in the US and is what gives content providers the legal protection to speak up in court when they feel they have been treated unfairly.

FCC chairmen are selected by the president, Ajit Pai was selected by Donald Trump. As such, it’s no doubt that President Trump supports this new assault on net neutrality. Any question of Ajit Pai’s motives can be erased after knowing that before his current appoint as FCC chairman and FCC commissioner before that, he was a lawyer for Verizon: the same company that successfully sued the FCC and led to Title II regulations in 2015 that are now in place to protect net neutrality. Trump also spoke out against net neutrality in 2014 on Twitter.

The dangers of rolling back net neutrality protections are apparent and losing those protections will undoubtedly affect every American adversely and could even make using a VPN unbearably slow. Luckily, it isn’t a done deal and you can make a difference by letting the FCC know how you feel.

Navigating the FCC website to do that can be a little tedious, so John Oliver from Last Week Tonight with John Oliver simplified the process by buying the comical URL All you have to do is click express on the right side and leave your comment. Calling your Congressional representative will also help to ensure the Internet stays neutral.

To learn more about this issue check out John Oliver’s spiel below and check out the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s website.

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