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Net Neutrality Peril?

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…or what happens when people don’t understand the internet.

By Nick Briz

In the past few weeks, Facebook status updates and leftist news outlets have been clogged with alarmist posts about the alleged “Google/Verizon deal.” Ominous headlines have declared: “The Google/Verizon Deal: The End of the Internet as We Know It“ (Josh Silver, Huffington Post) and “Why Google became a Carrier-Humping, Net Neutrality Surrender Monkey” (Ryan Singel, Wired Magazine). Those following this barrage of opinion could be certainly forgiven for thinking any/all of the following:

Google and Verizon have some ideas for regulating the Internet, but they’re two huge corporations, and we all know corporations can’t be trusted! We need the FCC to reinstate their authority over the Interwebz and clean up this mess! But wait, the FCC? We don’t want the indecency police screwing things up on the free web — what if they gain too much power!? But we can’t just deregulate and leave it to the corporations; just look at what happened with the banks and BP!!! But the FCC is government, and government is owned by big business and Hollywood anyways! Net Neutrality is in danger! What do we do!?

Given this fervor, it’s important to understand a number of issues. First, what exactly is Net Neutrality? Well, it’s kind of an “online creed” — a “law of the [digital] land.” It’s what keeps the Internet functioning as the free and democratic space that cyber-optimists claim it to be. Net Neutrality is what made possible the innovative start-ups (such as Wikipedia, Ebay, Facebook, and, yes, Google) that now dominate the Internet today. In more technical terms, network neutrality means that data, of the same type, is treated the same regardless of source or destination. This means that your Yahoo mail travels at the same speed as my Gmail, and my Vimeo video travels at the same speed as your YouTube video. Net Neutrality has always been integral to the Internet, but not exactly the topic of our dinner conversations — so why now?

It started back in April when a federal appeals court ruled in favor of Comcast over the FCC. Comcast had been covertly sabotaging their customers’ use of file sharing applications (i.e. BitTorrent) by causing connections to drop — tactics not dissimilar to China’s Internet censorship regime. Despite the FCC’s efforts to demand that ISPs (Internet Service Providers) give users equal access to all content, it was ruled out of their jurisdiction. This ruling was the impetus for a series of meetings held by the FCC and attended by Internet and telecom moguls (including AT&T, Skype, Google and Verizon) in an effort to draft net neutrality legislation to present to Congress. If Congress decides to legislate, it could mean a bigger role for the FCC and could drastically change the Internet in the United States.

There are two major aspects of the FCC’s proposed plan. The first aspect, which is somewhat over-shadowed, is its push to improve the quality of national broadband. It’s no secret that the United States has some of worst Internet access in the world, usually ranking somewhere between 18 and 22 on the list, trumped on speed and affordability by South Korea, Japan, and the Netherlands, among others. Shameful, considering we practically invented the Internet. This is thanks to a lack of competition between ISPs who’ve successfully lobbied many state and local governments to ban municipal wi-fi and other efforts, thereby forcing scarcity, limiting options, and charging whatever they like.

The second aspect concerns passing legislation that enforces net neutrality. Here’s where Google and Verizon’s proposal comes in: a modest two pages which is equal parts promising, problematic, and ambiguous. The New York Times was the first to condemn this proposal, saying that the companies were closing a deal that would destroy net neutrality. Media, press, and commentators, such as Huffington Post, Wired, Public Knowledge, et al., were quick to follow with equally critical backlash. However, this plan is no “deal.” Rather, it’s simply a recommendation for the FCC to consider. Furthermore, this proposal is an effort to maintain net neutrality that seeks a compromise — the kind you might get from two corporations with very dissimilar views on the subject. It calls for legislation in favor of net neutrality, banning the deliberate slowing down or speeding up of traffic while limiting the FCC’s role in regulating it. The EFF (Electronic Frontier Foundation) — one of the strongest advocates for net neutrality — explains on their blog, “It would limit the FCC to case-by-case enforcement of consumer protection and nondiscrimination requirements and prohibit broad rulemaking” (the feared, previously prophesied, FCC trojan horse).

The dangerous component of the Google/Verizon proposition is the exemptions made for wireless services, where wireless Internet (as used by the iPhone, Smart Phone etc.) would not be subject to the same kind of regulation or transparency requirements that wired Internet would. This means that ISPs could offer “managed services” that wouldn’t exactly play by the rules of net neutrality. So say you want to watch a movie: Comcast could say your only option is their online video service Xfinity, and deny you another service like Netflix. As EFF argue, “Neutrality should be the rule for all services, and a distinction between wired and wireless (…) defies reason.” This is even more alarming because wireless services now go beyond Smart phones — my home Internet is wireless (I have a 4G connection instead of DSL or cable).

As more technology heads in this direction a plan like Google/Verizon could leave us with two separate Internets: one open and neutral and the other closed, costly, and proprietary (think Cable TV). The fear is that if these exemptions to regulations are made for wireless connections, as technology moves away from wires and in the direction of wireless services, we could see our current, vast, open Internet exchanged for a limited-options corporately-owned Internet.

In the end, the Google/Verizon proposal is simply that: a proposal, and one that the FCC, amidst all the noise, have been very clear about dismissing. However, the FCC seems to be on the path to declaring themselves the guardians of the web and they will propose something to Congress. We must keep an eye out for what that is and make sure it protects net neutrality and the open Internet. As the web continues to converge with every aspect of our daily lives, there’s more at stake than just cute cat videos.

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