by Paul Arnote (parnote)
Net neutrality. There's a topic that is divisive for many internet users. And yes, that division crosses political boundaries. But this article isn't about the political nature of the net neutrality debate, and we'll try to stay away from the politics of this topic as much as possible. Instead, we'll try to focus on explaining net neutrality, what the ramifications of net neutrality (or the lack of it) are, and what it might mean for internet users around the globe. Like it or not, net neutrality (or the lack of it) doesn't affect just U.S. internet users.
To start off with, we're labeling this section as pertaining to the U.S. Many, many other countries around the world have some form of net neutrality. From what we hear over here on the western side of the Atlantic, Spain appears to be one of the leaders in net neutrality. Of course, you should check the laws of the country you live in to ascertain the level of net neutrality in your area.
The term "net neutrality" has been around since about 2003. It was first noted in a paper published in the Journal of Telecommunications and High Technology Law. It outlined the concept, and described instances of abuse by telecom companies in the years preceding it.
In 2004, the FCC outlined "internet freedom guidelines." This was the FCC's first attempt to protect the internet without resorting to regulations. However, by 2008, the FCC was involved in a lawsuit with Comcast over the latter's throttling of torrent traffic.
In 2010, the FCC attempted to codify net neutrality and place restrictions on ISPs with the FCC Open Internet Order. But the FCC lost a 2014 court case against Verizon, when the court ruled that ISPs weren't classified as common carriers. This hampered the FCC's enforcement authority of the FCC Open Internet Order.
Then, the FCC passed a net neutrality rule in 2015 that classified ISPs as "common carriers," similar to telephone companies, under the FCC's Title II designation, under the Communications Act of 1934. Essentially, this reclassification states that ISPs are merely delivering a common, public service, and aren't necessarily distributing a proprietary product. This is along the lines of how your telephone company works, or how Federal Express works. FedEx doesn't own the packages it delivers to your house. Instead, they are the "service" that delivers the product.
In December, 2017, the FCC, under the "guidance" of the new FCC director Ajit Pai, a former lobbyist for Verizon, repealed the 2015 net neutrality regulations. Certainly, there can't be any conflict of interest there, especially after the broadband community spent nine years and millions of dollars lobbying the FCC to not regulate ISPs. The voting on the repeal by the FCC regulators was directly along "party lines" (sorry, but this is fact ... no political commentary intended or implied), with a 3-2 vote. Three "conservative" members voted for the repeal, and two "liberal" members voted against the repeal. As a result, the net neutrality rules from 2015 ended June 11, 2018.
Finally, the latest push to restore net neutrality focused on utilizing the Congressional Review Act of 1996 (hereinafter referred to as the CRA). This act basically allows for Congress to overturn bad regulations enacted by federal agencies. On May 17, 2018, the U.S. Senate voted to overturn the FCC's repeal of the 2015 net neutrality rules. However, the CRA stipulates that both chambers of Congress must act, essentially requiring a joint resolution to overturn a ruling. The U.S. House of Representatives refused to bring the resolution to a vote, resulting in the repeal of the net neutrality rules as voted on by Ajit Pai's FCC in December, 2017.
Explaining net neutrality
Basically, net neutrality forces ISPs to treat all internet traffic equally, without regard to the type of data it may be, or its source. This creates a "level playing field" for all data and all content providers, whether they are an established provider, or they are a brand new startup.
In the past, ISPs could and would "throttle" certain types of data, for a myriad of reasons. For example, in the U.S., Comcast was notorious for throttling torrent files. They erroneously believed that the only thing torrents were used for was "illegal" file sharing of music, movies and pirated software. That left those who downloaded something like ... say ... PCLinuxOS via a torrent download -- perfectly legal software that was neither music, movies or pirated software -- suffering with slower download speeds because of the throttling of torrent data. In some cases, the ISO couldn't be successfully downloaded via torrents because the throttling was so severe.
Once the FCC passed its net neutrality laws in 2015, ISPs were no longer allowed to throttle the traffic it did not "agree" with. Thus, torrents got the same bandwidth as Netflix, who got the same bandwidth as Google, who got the same bandwidth as the new mom and pop startup selling custom sweaters out of the back room of their house. In effect, net neutrality afforded everyone with a presence on the internet the same bandwidth and the same access to customers.
Without net neutrality, ISPs can go back to throttling internet traffic at will. Without net neutrality, ISPs are now free to charge an extra fee to content providers for preferential bandwidth, essentially creating an internet fast lane for those able or willing to pay the extorted toll.
Thus, without net neutrality, Comcast could charge Netflix an extra fee to insure that their data stream stays in the "fast lane" of the internet. But let's say that Netflix doesn't pay that "toll" to Comcast, opting to instead pay the "toll" to AT&T. Now, AT&T customers will get full HD movies streamed into their homes with little buffering, while Comcast customers will get their movies interrupted with periodic buffering and pixelation of the movie image due to not paying the internet "fast lane" toll. Not only does Netflix stand to lose customers due to perceived poor service on Comcast, but Comcast will also lose customers when those customers flock over to AT&T's internet service to get the better Netflix experience.
Meanwhile, the mom and pop startup selling custom sweaters out of the back room of their house starts off with an additional disadvantage (because we all know there aren't enough disadvantages to getting a new startup off the ground). Because they are a brand new company, they most likely don't have the money necessary to pay the toll to be in the internet fast lane. Thus, they are less likely to be able to compete with a similar business that has been around for a while that is able to pay the toll. Hence, being relegated to the internet "slow lanes," the new mom and pop startup's webpages, catalog and order pages all load much slower. This may cause them to lose customers they might have otherwise been able to serve, which ultimately affects the profits of the mom and pop startup, as well as their ability to grow, thrive and survive.
Without net neutrality, there's nothing to prevent an ISP from entering into agreements with content providers to provide preferential bandwidth to one company over that company's competitor. As such, Google could sign a "preferred provider" agreement with Comcast that gives preference to Google's search engine over Yahoo's. Then, customers will find that Google's search engine provides faster results than Yahoo's. Users start to abandon Yahoo in favor of Google's "faster" search engine, affecting the number of visitors to Yahoo, and thus, affecting their profits, reputation, and status in the search engine market.
Read more about net neutrality
Without a doubt, this is a huge and wide ranging topic. It would be impossible to cover this topic completely here in the pages of The PCLinuxOS Magazine. So, here are some additional resources that you can use to better educate yourself on the issue of net neutrality.
Tech Republic's Net Neutrality: A Cheat Sheet
Electronic Frontier Foundation's net neutrality statement
Wikipedia's Net Neutrality topic
The Real Daily's article on net neutrality repeal
Article from the New York Times on how net neutrality repeal could affect users
The ACLU's explanation of net neutrality
Of course, if you just enter "net neutrality" as your search term in your favorite search engine, you're likely to find many, many, many more references to not only exactly what net neutrality is, but also find many resources expressing the pros and cons of net neutrality.
For what it's worth, The PCLinuxOS Magazine wholly supports net neutrality. We feel that the installment of internet "fast lanes" will have a negative impact on fair competition, stifle innovation and new startups, reduce the free flow of information, and creates an uneven playing field that favors large corporations and companies over those with less resources.
We've shown you several examples why the repeal of net neutrality is not a good thing. The repeal only serves the interests of the ISPs, without considering the needs and interests of internet users. In fact, a vast majority of U.S. based internet users are overwhelmingly in favor of net neutrality, according to most polls.
Having an internet that heavily favors those who are able to "pay the toll" is neither open nor fair. Already, in too many instances, the flow of information is restricted by the unprecedented consolidation of information outlets. The lack of net neutrality gives those who are able to pay preferential treatment and preferential access to higher bandwidth to get their message out. Meanwhile, the rest of us metaphorically sit in bumper to bumper traffic in the more common "slow lanes" of the internet.
Net neutrality definitely levels the playing field, providing the same bandwidth to the little guys and new guys as the big boys and established boys. It is only in that environment that new ventures can realize their full potential, and it is only in that environment that new ideas can take root and grow.