Net neutrality: a reasonable request or a pipe dream?

One of the email lists I’ve signed up for is EFFector, the email “newsletter” from the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF). (If you want to subscribe to it, go to eff.org). The latest email (received today) concentrates on the issue of net neutrality, “the idea that Internet service providers (ISPs) should treat all data that travels over their networks equally … a principle that EFF strongly supports.”

EFF says:

Without [net neutrality], companies like Comcast and Verizon will be permitted to give preferential treatment to some websites over others. This would be a disaster for the open Internet. When new websites can’t get high-quality service, they’ll be less likely to reach users and less likely to succeed. The result: a less diverse Internet.

Just think about all the ways an open Internet has transformed the world. It’s changed the way we communicate, learn, share, and create. Citizens have used it to organize against government oppression. Innovative companies have helped us to map our communities and connect Internet users to family and friends across continents. Likewise, the Internet has revolutionized education: students can access knowledge previously tucked away in university libraries, now readily available online.

We want the Internet to live up to its promise, fostering innovation, creativity, and freedom. We don’t want regulations that will turn ISPs into gatekeepers, making special deals with a few companies and inhibiting new competition, innovation and expression.

Net neutrality is under threat. the FCC (Federal Communications Commission), the US body that deals with this kind of issue, is considering a plan that would allow some Internet providers to provide better access to some websites that pay a fee to reach users faster. This kind of “pay-to-play” Internet stifles innovation. New websites that can’t afford expensive fees for better service will face new barriers to success, leaving users with ever fewer options and a less diverse Internet.

The FCC has a disappointing history on online issues. In 2010, the FCC’s rules would have allowed ISPs free rein to discriminate as long as it was part of “reasonable efforts to… address copyright infringement.” This broad language could lead to more bogus copyright policing from the ISPs.

They do sometimes take action against ISPs who flout the FCC’s feeble rules. The EFF point out, for instance, that

– Comcast was caught interfering with their customers’ use of BitTorrent and other peer-to-peer file sharing
– A Canadian ISP slowed down all encrypted file transfers for five years
– The FCC fined Verizon for charging consumers for using their phone as a mobile hotspot

But this only happens when the EFF or similar organizations hassle the FCC to take action. And right now, there’s “fast lane” discrimination that allows wireless customers without data plans to access certain sites but not the whole Internet, something that the FCC doesn’t seem to have dealt with. This is discrimination that is inexplicable unless you accept the worrying conclusion that the FCC don’t work to control ISPs but is actually in the pocket of the ISPs. EFF tells us

The FCC also has a sad history of being captured by the very industries it’s supposed to regulate while ignoring grassroots public opinion. In the early 2000s, for example, the commission essentially ignored the comments of hundreds of thousands of Americans who opposed media consolidation.

Net neutrality is dying at the moment. ISPs often do not let their customers to access sites and services offered by other ISPs, a vile form of online censorship designed to fill the ISPs’ pockets.

The EFF can see a way out of this mess, as explained at The FCC and Net Neutrality: A Way Forward. Unfortunately the EFF is not the statuary body empowered to enforce net neutrality. That is (in the USA, which of course affects the entire internet) the FCC. And they won’t do their job. ISPs continue to throttle or completely block their customers from using sites offered by other ISPs. EFF tells us:

EFF has long been critical of the Federal Communications Commission’s efforts to regulate digital technologies and services. We’ve warned against FCC rules and strategies that threatened to (or actually did) give the agency too much power over innovation and user choice. And with good reason: the FCC has a sad history of being captured by the very industries it’s supposed to regulate. It also has a history of ignoring grassroots public opinion. In the early 2000s, for example, the commission essentially ignored the comments of hundreds of thousands of Americans who opposed media consolidation.

When it came to the open Internet, the FCC’s confused legal arguments regarding the scope and limit of their power made us fearful that the FCC would abuse its power. With respect to net neutrality, it started out by claiming a broad “ancillary” authority to regulate the Internet – a claim that, if accepted, could be a Trojan horse for ever-expanding regulatory overreach. If the agency couldn’t articulate a reasonable and clear legal authority for its actions, how could we trust it to recognize the limits of that authority?

The FCC has even proposed rules that would allow companies like Comcast and Verizon to charge websites and web applications a fee to reach users more reliably. So what can we do to stop internet apartheid? EFF has proposed a “constellation of solutions, such as:

Rules that block non-neutral behavior… drastically enhanced transparency rules and community based solutions that promote competition, like municipal and community deployment of fiber. Network neutrality rules also must extend to mobile data networks, which is currently not the case [which is a dire situation, considering how many people use the mobile internet with tablets, smartphones etc].

Without detailed transparency into how providers are managing their networks, users will be unable to determine why some webpages are slow to load, while new services that hope to reach those users will have a harder time figuring out if there is some artificial barrier in place.

We also need more competition. Right now most Internet users have only one or two options for high-speed Internet for their homes and businesses. 20 states currently have anti-competitive laws that restrict the ability for community groups and municipalities from building their own networks. Fortunately, the FCC has said it will challenge these laws. But we can also organize locally to encourage more high-speed Internet options in our cities, like by urging mayors to light up unused fiber or building community networks.
[…]
The good news is we are speaking up. The FCC has opened a “rulemaking” process, where the agency has asked the public to weigh-in on its proposed rules. We created a tool, DearFCC.org, to help everyone take part in this important debate.

If the FCC embraces rules that allow wealthy incumbent companies to reach users at faster speeds, the services we see in the future could be the same companies that are popular today. But we want to expect the unexpected. To get there, we have to make certain new businesses and services are able to meaningfully connect to users.

This rulemaking process is one of our best opportunities to be heard. Visit DearFCC.org and tell your story today. The FCC needs to hear us loud and clear: It’s our Internet, and we’re going to fight to protect it.

Congress is trying to rush to pass an amendment that will kill net neutrality. We who care about our internet need to contact them, via https://www.dearfcc.org/call. Oh, and give EFF some money. In this horrible world, money talks. Go to www.eff.org to learn more. Net neutrality must not be allowed to die!

NB: Even if you’re not a US citizen/resident, it’d be a good idea to complain to them. A deluge of complaints from all round the world might remind the FCC that the internet is an international network of networks, and actions taken by the FCC will impact net users everywhere. Go to www.eff.org to find out more! Cheers!

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