“Net neutrality is the secret sauce that has made the internet awesome”

 In U.S.

The internet as we know it is about to change drastically.

Net neutrality — the standard that internet service providers, or ISPs, must treat all traffic equally — was repealed Thursday in a party-line vote by the Federal Communications Commission in Washington. FCC chair Ajit Pai, flanked by two Republican allies, has a majority on the commission.

Commercial ISPs like Comcast, AT&T, and Verizon will be free to block content, throttle users’ internet use, and prioritize their own services at the expense of competitors’. It’s a wide-reaching and controversial issue that some have called one of the “biggest corporate giveaways in history.”

As net neutrality proponents see it, these protections are essential to providing open and equal access to the internet. The plan by Pai, a former Verizon attorney, is a wide-ranging dismantling of not only the safeguards put in place by the Obama administration but ones that have been embedded in the World Wide Web since its invention in 1989.

Pai maintains that his proposal is a standard rollback in government regulation that gives ISPs more freedom for things like infrastructure investments. But critics argue that this would result in fast and slow lanes for internet access and could lead to favoritism and the entrenchment of wealthy players. In other words, nothing could stop AT&T from slowing down Netflix in an effort to prioritize its own cable TV package, or outright blocking a website that’s critical of its business practices.

To better understand what’s at stake, I spoke to Barbara van Schewick, a net neutrality expert and a professor at Stanford Law School, before the vote. The conversation has been lightly edited and condensed.

Eric Allen Been

Why should ordinary people care about net neutrality, which can seem very complicated?

Barbara van Schewick

The internet isn’t a specialized service for geeks anymore. It’s long become woven into everyone’s daily lives and every sector of the economy. Net neutrality is the secret sauce that has made the internet awesome. It ensures that we, not Comcast or Verizon, get to choose what content we read, what websites we go to, and what services we use on the internet.

That’s been the case since the beginning of the internet in the US, and it has stayed that way because the FCC, under the leadership of Democrats and Republicans alike, ensured that the companies we pay to get online could not interfere with the free markets and free marketplaces of ideas.

Pai’s proposal will change that. It will allow broadband providers to block websites on content grounds, decide which apps we can use, charge online services simply to reach subscribers at all, create fast lanes that favor companies and speakers with deep pockets, and make it more expensive for local and niche sites to reach readers.

Americans understand this. That’s why Pai’s move to abolish net neutrality protections that date [to] long before 2015 has led to such a loud and sustained outcry by Americans of all political affiliations. Americans filed millions of comments with the FCC, even more than were filed in 2014. Startups, small businesses, investors, faith groups, musicians, and community activists have filed comments, held rallies, written op-eds, and called and met with their members of Congress. Americans have placed more than 1 million calls to Congress urging that the protections stay in place, and that’s just through BattleForTheNet.com alone.

Eric Allen Been

If net neutrality protections are stripped, ISPs in theory would have the right to block any website or content they see fit, even a newspaper whose editorials it doesn’t like. But do you think that’s something they would ever do? That ISPs would go that far?

Barbara van Schewick

Blocking and throttling, like how Comcast once restricted the peer-to-peer file sharing application BitTorrent, really is a concern. [And while P2P programs have been stigmatized as a means for distributing copyrighted materials, it’s also become a popular protocol for sharing things like open source operating systems and other large legal files.]

The regime that Pai is now proposing, which is that the Federal Trade Commission will now police ISPs — that’s putting our internet under an agency that has no rules against blocking or discrimination. The only protection that will remain is the rule that says if you block or discriminate, or you offer “paid pass lanes” to websites [that is, solicit payments for faster service], then you have to tell your customers about it.

The markets for internet access in Europe are a lot more competitive than the markets in the United States. Here, 51 percent of Americans only have one ISP to choose from. So those people have no other option if they don’t like how their ISP is behaving.

But Europe has a lot more competition because they require the phone companies to open their networks to independent ISPs. So the Europeans said, “We think net neutrality is a problem that can be fixed with competition.” So if ISPs said to customers that they are blocking or slowing down websites, then customers who don’t like that can go to another ISP that doesn’t do the same. And this threat of people switching providers would discipline the ISPs and ultimately prevent blocking and discrimination. That won’t work in the US, and it didn’t in Europe.

Eric Allen Been

And that’s exactly the rhetoric Pai is using: that competition will keep ISPs honest.

Barbara van Schewick

So that’s his argument. And it sounds really nice in theory, but it doesn’t work in practice because there are so few ISPs available to many people in the US. We know that because the European Union ran this experiment for us. After they adopted their regime, they had widespread blocking and discrimination [even with the additional competition]. Looking to Europe, we can see what a world without net neutrality looks like.

In the Netherlands, the telecommunication company KPN was losing a lot of money because so many people were using online text messaging apps like WhatsApp. People weren’t paying for the traditional, expensive text messages over a cellular network.

KPN said, “We are losing all this money. That’s not sustainable. We will switch to plans that do not include the right to use online text messaging.” And if someone wanted to use online text messaging, they had to buy an online text messaging option. That got such a huge outcry in the Netherlands that they became the first country to adopt a net neutrality law that banned blocking and slowing down and speeding up websites.

And we had a German ISP that blocked access to websites that were criticizing its business practices. We have never seen this in the US because under our net neutrality regime, that wouldn’t be legal. Our regime says an ISP cannot block legal content, applications, and services. That means if it’s legal, the ISP can’t block it. Let’s say we don’t like online gun sales or whatever it is. The ISP can only say, “Look I can’t do anything about it, because as long as it’s legal, we have to transmit it.”

Eric Allen Been

A lot of ISPs have been touting their own net neutrality pledges and saying that even if these regulations are stripped, they will still abide by net neutrality guidelines. But Comcast, for instance, recently deleted their original net neutrality pledge the same day the FCC announced its first draft to appeal these regulations. And then the new one they put up contained no promise related to not engaging in paid priority. Can we take these corporate pledges seriously?

Barbara van Schewick

I would not want the future of the internet to depend on an ISP’s willingness to voluntarily behave in a good way. We have seen in Europe that it’s not necessarily in the ISP’s interest to behave in the way that’s required by net neutrality. And ISPs can change their promises, and already the promises are so much narrower than what the net neutrality protections require.

None of the ISPs talk about a promise to manage networks in a way that does not single out applications or classes of applications. None of them commit to not charging websites for access. These are essential components for net neutrality, and so I do not think at all that we should leave the future of this really critical infrastructure to promises by the ISPs that can change at any time.

Eric Allen Been

Pai has claimed that the real threat to the open internet is from social media companies like Twitter because it moderates and has removed conservative content from its platform. Do you think there’s any truth there?

Barbara van Schewick

I think that’s really just an effort to distract people. I know there are a lot of people who are unhappy with the specific way in which companies like Twitter or Google or Facebook manage their services and how they limit certain content on their site. We can have a long debate about that. But there is a key difference between the website that runs on top of the internet and the actual internet. And the difference is, if a website blocks certain content, I can go to a different website. But if my ISP blocks access to a certain website, then there’s no way to get around that.

And I think part of what was so surprising about Pai using this example is because if people are concerned and unhappy that companies like Twitter or other internet platform companies are policing certain content on their sites, these people should really be fighting for net neutrality protections. They are the only thing that prevents the ISPs from engaging in the same behavior.

Eric Allen Been

The debate about net neutrality has been increasingly cast as a liberal versus conservative issue. Do you think that’s a good or bad thing for protecting the open internet?

Barbara van Schewick

It’s really misleading. Net neutrality isn’t a partisan issue. Polls consistently show that Americans, whether Republican or Democrat, support the current net neutrality protections. A poll that was published in July shows that 77 percent of Americans support the current protections at the FCC — and that 73 percent of Republicans, 80 percent of Democrats, and 76 percent of independents want to keep the current protections. And if you look on some of the more conservative subreddits on Reddit or even Breitbart, there was huge, vibrant opposition to Pai’s plan.

Net neutrality protections are absolutely consistent with a free market framework. They are really a way to protect all these free markets that arose from and depend on the internet.

Eric Allen Been

Tim Wu, the Columbia professor who coined the term “net neutrality,” has argued that the judiciary will in the end have to save net neutrality. You, on the other hand, advocated in a piece that Congress should intervene. Do you think there’s still a chance to stop the FCC order before it’s adopted, and what do you fear will happen if it isn’t?

Barbara van Schewick

Wu is right that the FCC’s draft order is based on a shaky legal foundation and is likely to be struck down in court. But that shouldn’t have made people complacent in the first place. And the hope is Congress would have intervened before this ruling.

Up until the vote, there is still a chance to stop the order in the first place. [If it passes], it will immediately cause uncertainty for angel investors and venture capitalists, chilling their investments in startups. Then when the order goes into effect, after being published in the Federal Register, broadband providers will be free to start charging fees for access to users and pay-to-play fast lanes. Even if a court stays the order, the uncertainty for investors will remain.

Eric Allen Been is a freelance writer who has written for the Wall Street Journal, the Boston Globe, Vice, Playboy, the New Republic, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and TheAtlantic.com.

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