Later this month, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) will hold a vote on whether or not to scrap key rules that gave the United States network neutrality rules.
Network neutrality is a key pillar in a free and open Internet. For American citizens, the FCC is about to vote on whether to break down that pillar by scrapping what rules were put in place to enshrine such a rule. According to reports last month, the vote is scheduled to take place on December 14. That is now little more than two weeks away.
For those fighting for a free and open internet, this move is seen as a stunning about face few could have predicted back in 2015. Back then, ISPs were gearing up for so-called “zero-rating” and Internet fast lanes. In short, the policies would have ISPs favour their own services at the expense of any competing services. Some of the ideas at the time involve having low bandwidth caps. If a user wants to use, say, a streaming service, they could opt to use the ISPs controlled service and not have data flowing from using that service count towards the cap. If a user opts to use a competing service, then their connection could be slow or throttled. The ensuing data would count towards their data cap.
Advocates for a free and open Internet blasted the idea, saying it would effectively pick winners and losers in an otherwise free and open market on the Internet. The long and heated battle came to what many thought was a conclusion when the FCC went to a vote to enshrine the network neutrality votes. After the vote, network neutrality won out and ISPs were forbidden from distorting the markets by putting intense pressure on heir users to use services of the ISPs choosing. While advocates noted that the rules may not have gone far enough, it was nevertheless hailed as a major victory.
Fast forward to today and users and advocates find themselves with the exact opposite situation. The FCC, under the chairperson Ajit Pai, is gearing up for a vote that would scrap the hard fought victories from just two years ago. Now, Internet users and open internet advocates are facing the real possibility that the control of the Internet in the US could be taken away from an open market and placed back into the hands of major corporate ISPs (Internet Service Providers).
Internet Advocates Fear the Worst
Just a few days ago, famed Internet advocate Cory Doctorow posted on BoingBoing a glance of what a non-neutral network might look like. He posted a picture of a Portugal ISPs offering which shows ISPs offering a tiered service based on what content users want. If you want e-mail, you get the e-mail package. If you want music, you pay more for another package.
Whether or not American Internet would actually look like that specifically once the network neutrality rules are scrapped is actually up in the air. There are a number of ways in which ISPs could behave under a non-neutral network. One way is that ISPs could simply offer a low cap and white list a small number of sites where bandwidth wouldn’t count towards the cap. Another possibility is that ISPs could simply outright block any service that they do not favour. So, the specifics aren’t actually known at this time, but there is reasonable justification to believe that whatever the ISPs come up with, it is bad news for American’s who value an open Internet.
Millions of Americans Ignored
Earlier, the FCC solicited comments from the American public to ask for their feedback on network neutrality. In response, American’s overwhelmingly supported network neutrality and rejected ISPs blocking or throttling services they don’t like. Earlier this year, that sentiment continues as an overwhelming number of Americans support network neutrality.
Unfortunately for Americans, Pai seems intent on ignoring the voices of American citizens. In numerous reports, Pai said that he will only listen to those who make a “serious” legal argument.
Those comments further muddy the waters of the debate surrounding the comments. Already, there are reports that a number of the comments sent to the FCC demanding the repeal of network neutrality were sent from Russian sourced e-mail addresses. The FCC hit back saying that the only fake comments came from those supporting network neutrality.
ISPs Prepare for a Non-Neutral Future
In the wake of a looming loss of network neutrality, US ISPs are already preparing for the possibility that they may soon be the gatekeepers on who wins and who loses on the Internet. A day after the announced plan to scrap network neutrality, US ISP Comcast deleted their pledge to support a neutral network. In their pledge, Comcast promised that there are no priority packets and that they would not be blocking lawful content. Many see this as yet another sign of things to come, though Comcast reportedly has not commented on the move.
Users Scramble for Solutions
In response, American’s are scrambling to find ways to work around a non-neutral network. Some have suggested VPN’s (Virtual Private Networks) to obfuscate their traffic. The unfortunate reality is that when an ISP is no longer respecting a neutral network, they have the power to veto any packet they don’t like. So, if a packet appears on their network that cannot be recognized, it can easily be blocked. This would defeat VPNs and any kind of protocol obfuscation.
Others have suggested that a new Internet be rebuilt. The problem is that a country wide network would be needed to be built first. The commitment for such infrastructure both in costs and labour is immense. Even the major corporations that run the ISPs ended up having the government to pay for the infrastructure through tax dollars.
Some have suggested that Spacex programs are the solution given that the organization might create a space program devoted to delivering the Internet through satellite connections. While this may be one of the most promising ideas floating around at the moment, such an initiative is still years away from completion. Between then and now, a lot of damage to the Internet can be done.
As long as the ISPs have control over your packets, then possibilities of routing around such control suddenly become extremely limited – if any solutions exist at all on a technological front.
That leaves political solutions. Organizations such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) have launched initiatives to help American citizens fight for a fair and open Internet. These initiatives help guide American’s to effectively communicate to their representatives how they feel about the issues. At this stage, this is likely one of the most important things Americans can do to save the Internet at this time.
With the clock ticking down, the possibility of American’s losing one of the most important innovations to benefit democracy will only continue to grow.