Net Neutrality and you.

Mar 04 2017

You may or may not have noticed amongst the blizzard of other stuff that's happened in the last two weeks that Donald Trump appointed Ajit Pai to the chairmanship of the Federal Communications Commission.  Pai has a history of being something of a contrarian; during his time as one of the five commissioners of the FCC, he repeatedly spoke against regulations that protected the consumer and was against diverse media ownership (since the 1980's, we went from 50 media companies to just six).  Time and again Pai's said that he was going to tear down regulation after regulation that the FCC was responsible for enforcing, and so far he has a track record of making that happen, albeit piece by piece and not all at once. 

But what does this mean?

Net Neutrality is the legal state in which every Internet Service Provider out there has to provide the same kind of service for all of its users to every online service out there.  In other words, the Net is treated like a basic utility, no different from water or electricity.  If a provider gets caught monkeying with its service to privilege some company over another, they can get fined.  A number of large service providers, including Comcast and AT&T, pledged publicaly that they'd adhere to the terms of Net Neutrality until a certain future date.  That's pretty much it.

Let's look at a world in which net.neutrality is a thing in the United States, which it still seems to be as of the time I wrote this article:

You want to browse Facebook to see what's going on with the people you follow, so you plug facebook.com into your web browser.  Your wireless access point isn't the greatest (it was provided by your ISP) so it takes a few seconds for Facebook to come up, but then you go about your business.  Your browser doesn't do the greatest job of handling the wonky JavaScript FB uses, but it gets the job done nicely.  Later in the afternoon you decide to hang out on the couch and catch up on a television series that you haven't had time to watch lately, so you pull up Netflix, log in, and put your feet up.  You've been staying off of Tumblr because everybody's been talking about it and, as a rule, you avoid spoilers.  While you're watching television you also pick up the Rubik's Cube that you've had sitting on the endtable for a few weeks and take another crack at solving it.  You pull up You Can Do the Cube on the tablet next to you on the couch, open the 3x3 solution and tap on the White Corners part, because that's where you got stuck last time.  Life is pretty hunky-dory, and I think you get what I'm driving at.  All of this is because your ISP (which is also pretty much the phone company) treats everything exactly the same: No website gets prioritized over another, no websites get blocked "just because" (unless you turn on the parental controls, that is), and there don't seem to be (as far as we know, anyway) any sub rosa deals between the ISP and one or more companies in which competing services get blocked.

Let's look at a possible world without Net Neutrality, because all of the things we take for granted but don't necessarily know about are gone:

You want to browse Facebook to see what's going on with the people you follow, so you plug facebook.com into your web browser.  Facebook takes an interminable amount of time to load - about a minute, which is an eternity on the Net - but you really want to see what's going on with your parents back home so you deal with it.  What you don't know is that Net traffic from Facebook's closest data center is being artificially throttled back because the peering agreement between your ISP and the network operator that provides that data center with its primary link is in dispute.  The tier-2 provider doesn't want to just cut Facebook off entirely so they're deliberately making life difficult for them by cutting their speed down to one third of what it normally is, in the hope that the problems they're causing will cause FB to cave a bit more to their demands. (This actually happens from time to time.)  As you scroll down through your FB feed, you notice that it's taking a very long time for each new post to appear; a frustratingly long time, in fact.

You contemplate taking another crack at that Rubik's Cube.  You tried the other day with the help of You Can Do the Cube but the website seemed to be offline.  Maybe it ran its course and the admins took it down, but Google still had it indexed.  What you don't know is that your ISP's content management team, which decides what websites to let through, what websites to throttle, and what websites to block added it to the block list because it wasn't a particularly popular site (it's no Twitter or Google), and if they wanted to be popular they'd pay their hosting provider for the premium access package, which would ensure that it was accessible by your ISP's customers.  You Can Do the Cube's admins are already paying for the cellular access package, which ensures that their site can be reached from all of the USian cellular networks, but adding the cable ISP access package would just be too expensive.

While you're playing around with that Rubik's Cube (and you've just messed up that one side that you spent so long getting lined up) it seems like a good idea to watch a little television.  There's that show that you're fond of that you've fallen behind on that everybody's been talking about; you've been staying off of Tumblr because you, as a rule, avoid spoilers whenever you can.  From time to time it catches your attention that Tumblr pops right open for you, but Facebook seems to take its sweet old time.  Those new companies with fifteen employees who work 24x7x365 always do so much better... what isn't apparent is that Tumblr is owned by Yahoo, and Yahoo has a business agreement with your ISP that ensures that all of their services get "lane one" priority, which is to say that traffic to and from Yahoo's properties doesn't get messed with at all.  Yahoo pays a pretty penny for lane one priority, but it more than makes up for it with all the advertising and user profiling revenue.  Watching Netflix is starting to get to you, too - the video stream is choppy and laggy, and a few times you have a chance to get up, go to the bathroom, and fix yourself a snack in between chances to actually watch an episode of that show.  You contemplate switching ISPs because their service is really hit-or-miss anymore.  A few days ago you saw on Twitter (which also has a business agreement with your ISP for priority access, but only a lane two agreement because Twitter still isn't turning a profit) that they'd just signed a multi-hundred million dollar contract with Amazon, and you'd been meaning to try Amazon Video for a while now.

You log into your Amazon account and find that show you've been watching.  Holy cats... smooth video and crisp audio, without stuttering or lag in weeks!  You do a little poking around in the library and find that just about every show you really have an interest in is there, plus some new stuff that Amazon's been producing in house.  It might be worth cancelling your Netflix subscription.

That business agreement between your ISP and Amazon?  If you read the actual document you'd see that... yup, Amazon bought a lane one agreement with your ISP for Amazon Video, plus they threw into the mix priority access to Amazon's online shopping sites, and down in the fine print there is also verbiage that your ISP throttle access to Etsy, effectively dropping them into lowest paid transit tier along with most of the consumer-friendly hosting providers out there, like Dreamhost (full disclosure: All of my websites are hosted by Dreamhost.  I'm not getting any kickbacks from them.)  Etsy would blow a gasket if they knew they weren't getting lane the two access from your ISP they were paying for, but they're not going to find out unless somebody leaks that document and it can be authenticated, are they?  Besides, Etsy doesn't have anything you're really interested in.  Not that you've had a chance to really go poking around in there, that is.  Time's money and you can't be waiting for pages to load, can you?

(Note to corporate lawyers: This is all hypothetical stuff.  I'm not saying that you're doing anything shady but these bits make for a good illustration of why Net Neutrality is important, don't they?)

I can go on and on, but I think you get my point.  Without Net Neutrality, backroom deals that prevent fair access would make it legally feasible to limit what we can do and say.  It makes it implicitly easier for subtle forms of censorship to be implemented, either by frustrating access, cutting off dissenting media sources, or silently filtering out inconvenient information in realtime.  At the very least, it would ensure that only people who have lots of money could make their voices heard.  No Net Neutrality would also make it significantly more difficult for competition because startups and new companies may not have the raw capital to buy decent access from the big network carriers.  No users or customers means no revenue, which means no business, which means the business won't survive.  It also makes it more likely that the big carriers themselves have less incentive to solve their disputes amicably, which would effectively Balkanize the Net.