Over Easy: Understanding Net Neutrality
Wednesday was Internet Slowdown Day—a digital day of action intended to call attention to the perils of an internet without net neutrality. A lot of people hear the term “net neutrality” and think it sounds vaguely like a good thing, but most people don’t really understand what it is — or what it can mean to us.
The short answer (without getting into the technical weeds) is whether the internet will be an open and free platform (neutral), or fragmented into virtual fiefdoms and constrained such that only the richest players can fully participate. “Net neutrality” has been redefined and convoluted over time in various ways, but the basic concept is whether or not your Internet Service Provider (ISP) — the cable or DSL or fiber company that you pay for your internet access — can pick winners and losers by requiring some companies to pay the ISP extra fees just to be available at all, or available in a “better” (i.e., faster) way.
Internet Slowdown Day was conceived to inspire more people to offer public comment against the Federal Communication Commission’s proposed guidelines for Internet Service Providers before the public comment period ends on September 15.
The FCC’s proposed rules were published in mid May, and allow for potential paid prioritization on internet traffic. This means that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) could charge content companies (like Netflix, for example) for faster content delivery on the internet “superhighway” to the ISP’s paying customers, creating “fast lanes” for large companies’ websites, and “slow lanes” for the small players. But ISPs claim that service providers, like Netflix and Google, are getting a “free ride” on their networks, since those services are popular with their users. ISPs would like to force those popular and very successful companies to pay more.
Everyone already pays for their own bandwidth. You pay your access provider, and the big internet companies pay for their bandwidth as well. And what you pay for is your ability to reach all those sites on the internet. What the internet access providers are trying to do is to get everyone to pay twice. That is, you pay for your bandwidth, and then they want, say, Netflix, to pay again for the bandwidth you already paid for, so that Netflix can reach you. This is under the false belief that when you buy internet service from your internet access provider, you haven’t bought with it the ability to reach sites on the internet. The big telcos and cable companies want to pretend you’ve only bought access to the edge of their network, and then internet sites should have to pay extra to become available to you.
Many net neutrality advocates are asking the FCC to reclassify broadband under Title II of the Communications Act of 1934, which would make broadband providers “common carriers.” If this happened, the FCC would have more power over them and would have a bigger mandate to enforce regulations to stop broadband services from selecting winners and losers from internet-based content companies (e.g., Netflix), depending on whether these companies paid extra. (Netflix is a convenient illustrative example, but there are many others.)
A decade ago, there was discussion about whether cable broadband providers are technically “telecommunications” services (classified as common carriers under Title II) or if they provide an “information service” that does not fall under Title II and therefore are not common carriers. After relentless lobbying from the cable companies, the FCC decided that cable modem service should be exempt from Title II regulations. When this decision was challenged, the Supreme Court agreed with the cable companies and the FCC that cable broadband was not a telecommunications service under Title II. Subsequently, people proposed that this would also apply to DSL lines (like AT&T, for example), and the FCC reclassified DSL outside of Title II as well.
If the FCC reclassifies broadband as a telecommunications service, which will help protect an open and neutral internet, some fear that it will have to enforce the entire set of rules that were developed for telephone service, such as rules about rate schedules, telephone operator services, carrier reporting requirements, etc., that would lead to a a lot of new problems if incorrectly imposed on the internet. “Forbearance” about enforcement is written into the statutes, and helps ensure that the FCC does only what is necessary, and nothing more.
So, how successful was the Internet Slowdown Day? According to Fight for the Future, it was incredibly successful!
Calls made to Congress: 303,099
Emails sent to Congress: 2,167,092
Comments filed at the FCC: 722,364
Calls per minute to Congress (during peak hours from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.): 1,000
Participating websites: more than 10,000
Facebook shares of spinning icon: more than 1,120,000
According to Executive Director David Segal of Demand Progress,
The Internet Slowdown was the biggest day of online activism since the Internet Blackout of 2012, when people rejected the SOPA and PIPA copyright bills. As the FCC decision on Net Neutrality approaches, Internet users will continue to speak out in numbers and with a message that will be impossible to ignore.
It’s not too late to sign the letter to Congress!