More than any other invention of our time, the Internet has unlocked possibilities we could just barely imagine a generation ago. And here’s a big reason we’ve seen such incredible growth and innovation: Most Internet providers have treated Internet traffic equally. That’s a principle known as “net neutrality” — and it says that an entrepreneur’s fledgling company should have the same chance to succeed as established corporations, and that access to a high school student’s blog shouldn’t be unfairly slowed down to make way for advertisers with more money.
Recently, President Barack Obama called for the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to reclassify broadband service under the Title II of the Telecommunications Act. This was a huge move in support of net neutrality. This move would signify that broadband services, in the eyes of the American government, is considered a necessity as a basic service like water or power.
Not many are opposed to it, as you might expect, but unfortunately there are some people that oppose it. For example:
"Net Neutrality" is Obamacare for the Internet; the Internet should not operate at the speed of government.
— Senator Ted Cruz (@SenTedCruz) November 10, 2014
This is where the problem comes in. It isn’t very surprising that Senator Ted Cruz came out in opposition of President Obama on this issue as he received $47,000 from major telecom companies for campaigning. This fact was highlighted a few month’s ago by John Oliver on HBO’s Last Week Tonight with John Oliver:
Why is it important?
If it isn’t obvious, net neutrality is important because it protects innovation. As a strong supporter of products on the cloud, specifically SaaS (Software as a Service), net neutrality laws may effect how all businesses are run.
Dan Appleman recently wrote an article about the Force.com platform and how it is providing everyone the ability to create their own innovations and applications. Salesforce’s AppExchange is a great avenue for startups to launch new products. With the Salesforce developer community booming (up to 1.7 million at Dreamforce ’14), innovation is happening faster than ever. If the next breakthrough application involves some network heavy operations, wouldn’t it be a shame to see them struggle simply due to regulations passed by the government?
Despite the fact that large telecom companies are pouring money into the United States government at an alarming rate, there actually are some valid debates that need to be addressed.
Quality of Service (QoS) is a great topic of debate around net neutrality. QoS is currently used on networks in hardware like routers in which it will prioritize things like high definition video that require more bandwidth for a seamless experience. By utilizing QoS, your router can decide what traffic deserves priority over other traffic simply due to the immediate need of that information by the end user. A perfect example is high definition video streaming being prioritized over loading a website like mine. Imagine a house where four people are currently accessing the Internet. If one person is streaming high definition video, another playing an online game, and the final two are just on Facebook or reading other sites like this blog. In that house, a router set up for QoS will allow more bandwidth to be used by the user with high definition video and the user playing an online game than the other two. This really comes into play when all four users are tapping all of the available bandwidth. QoS will actually throttle the users not on high definition video or online gaming, degrading their experience slightly. The reason for this is because the information and sites being accessed by these users is not considered as critical as the stream of data required to keep that video playing or that game communicating with the server. At the end of the day, the experience degradation should be negligible for the two accessing the normal web sites, simply due to the fact that it is a smaller amount of data that needs to be transferred but also due to the fact that taking a bit longer to load that page doesn’t effect their experience drastically. On the other hand, if QoS is not used, the users watching high definition video and playing online games could suffer lag that requires buffering or even disconnecting them from the server. This would definitely effect their overall experience and provide a marginally better experience for the users accessing the sites. This brings into question the idea that maybe it isn’t the data that needs to be treated equally, but potentially the experience. This is something that the current arguments for net neutrality do not take into account. In its purest of forms, this is the best argument against net neutrality that most actually agree with. The key will be to find a way that everyone gets the same experience, without hurting any one specific data provider. The feasibility of something like this can be debated, but in my mind that should be the end goal.
The Internet is basically unregulated in the United States currently. One of the biggest hurdles in the United States is the fact that 96% of Americans have at most two ISPs. President Obama’s suggestion of adding broadband services to Title II could effect smaller ISPs by adding additional red tape that would be too expensive for many of them to stay in business. I am a huge advocate of an open market with competition among service providers, but I honestly don’t feel this argument has much merit. As I already stated, currently there is basically no competition so why would this make it any different? A few small ISPs may run into issues with this, but the greater good would benefit due to the fact that it would disallow the major ISPs from using strong arm and extortion tactics typical of a monopoly, like Comcast essentially shaking down Netflix. When compared with the rest of the world, on average it costs more in the United States to get high speed internet, despite the fact that our speeds are only the 25th fastest in the world. This is largely due to the lack of competition among the major providers. This is a severe lack of fiber options available to customers, mostly due to the high cost of using that type of infastructure. When there is no competition, there is no incentive for major telecom companies to provide that option. You may be thinking, but “I see commercials and advertisements for fiber through services like Verizon Fios and AT&T discussing fiber plans”. The fact is, services like Verizon Fios are not expanding anymore and AT&T was most likely bluffing the whole time. For a large majority of us, fiber connections simply won’t be available for a long time, mostly due to the fact that only smaller ISPs are even attempting it at this point (this is an easy way for them to compete). When the market refuses to compete fairly and openly, regulation is needed.
Censorship is another hot topic of debate when the government is involved. As many of you know, the internet shows both the best and worst of man kind. The FCC has very strict rules in regards to what content is allowed to be sent over the airwaves (currently radio and television). In my mind, this is something we do not need on the Internet and it is something that would severely hurt the Internet as a whole. By adding the Internet to Title II, there is potential this area could be gray in regards to government intervention with censorship. In my mind, it would be a grave mistake to add censorship to the Internet and it could fundamentally violate its entire existence. The Internet is the greatest knowledge base mankind has ever had by a very large margin. It would be a tragedy for the government to decide who has access to what information. On top of that, an argument can be made that censoring the Internet could severely hurt a democracy. Everyone has the right to their own opinion and in my opinion censoring information on the Internet would be a violation of the First Amendment and our free speech.
With that in mind, some people simply don’t like government intervention at all. Government regulation can be inherently bad. The argument can be made that currently the system isn’t broken, so why add regulation? In my mind, simply because something hasn’t happened, doesn’t mean it won’t. The large broadband providers currently in the market have already made attempts to abuse their power because of the lack of competition. Without competition, the only thing to stop these companies from abusing everyone is for the government to step in and regulate how they have to act. As much as I dislike government intervention due to my laissez faire views, the lack of competition forces the government to intervene with some rules to keep the abuse to a minimum. Does it have the chance of not working exactly as expected? Sure, it most likely will have some hiccups. However, if we never try and just accept our fate, we would have no one to blame but ourselves when things get out of hand. I would have a different opinion if there wasn’t so much evidence pointing to these telecom giants acting against the best interest of literally everyone but themselves. They have abused their power, and they will do so again. We should not let that happen.
There is also an argument that some companies “hog” the bandwidth. Companies like Netflix, Youtube, and Twitch use a majority of the bandwidth on the Internet. ISPs are arguing that these services should pay for the amount of bandwidth needed on their networks. I think this is an awful argument. If I pay for an Internet connection, I should be able to access whatever I want. If my ISP wants to limit my bandwidth, they are more than capable of doing so (as my ISP currently does and has in the past). This cost does not need to be passed back to the data provider or back to the customer. The customers order a set amount of bandwidth, if they use it all in a day or two watching Netflix, then they will have to buy more. It isn’t far to limit the bandwidth and still charge a company like Netflix just because they used up most of that customer’s bandwidth.
Check out Episode 484 of This Week in Tech (TWiT) to hear a great debate over the first hour of the show around net neutrality. I agree with Dane Jasper‘s point of view during most of that talk, however both sides have legitimate concerns and it is important to not let net neutrality appear as such a black and white issue. In my mind, this may be one of the most important decisions we make as a society for the future. We need to get it right and that deserves looking at it from all angles.
Around the World
While net neutrality has been a hot topic in the United States lately, it has also been important to the rest of the world. The European Parliament passed laws strongly in favor of net neutrality earlier this year. Also earlier this year, the Brazilian Chamber of Deputies passed the Marco Civil da Internet.
The Marco Civil provides every Brazilian with strong and enforceable guarantees of free expression, net neutrality, due process, the right to privacy and the right to connect.
In 2012, the first European country passed net neutrality legislation when the Netherlands voted in favor of net neutrality. Chile was at the forefront of the net neutrality movement, passing a law back in 2010 to protect it. For the most part, these laws have been heralded as a huge success.
Despite the praise the laws have received, there have been some problems that have occurred. Chile recently banned “zero rating” access to services. “Zero rating” is the act of services like Facebook, Google, Wikipedia, and others striking deals with mobile internet providers so that users without paid internet connections can access a very limited level of the service. “Zero rating” applications can be very useful for people in less developed countries where the internet can be much more difficult to obtain. Unfortunately, “zero rating” access and net neutrality do not play well together as “zero rating” access is only available when a company pays for their applications to be provided when others are not.
On the other side of the spectrum, there have been countless violations of net neutrality in the past. Countries like China, Russia, Turkey, and other have censored the Internet to keep certain information away from the public. This fact, in conjunction with “zero rating” access, has made certain data available in some countries, while disallowing it in others.
Call to Action
Should the Internet be filed under Title II? To be honest, I can’t say definitively one way or another. I am not a lawyer and I don’t know Title II in depth enough. Ultimately, in my opinion, net neutrality is a necessity because at this point in our society the Internet is a human right. I 100% agree with President Obama’s four main points:
- No blocking. If a consumer requests access to a website or service, and the content is legal, your ISP should not be permitted to block it. That way, every player — not just those commercially affiliated with an ISP — gets a fair shot at your business.
- No throttling. Nor should ISPs be able to intentionally slow down some content or speed up others — through a process often called “throttling” — based on the type of service or your ISP’s preferences.
- Increased transparency. The connection between consumers and ISPs — the so-called “last mile” — is not the only place some sites might get special treatment. So, I am also asking the FCC to make full use of the transparency authorities the court recently upheld, and if necessary to apply net neutrality rules to points of interconnection between the ISP and the rest of the Internet.
- No paid prioritization. Simply put: No service should be stuck in a “slow lane” because it does not pay a fee. That kind of gatekeeping would undermine the level playing field essential to the Internet’s growth. So, as I have before, I am asking for an explicit ban on paid prioritization and any other restriction that has a similar effect.
However, I would also urge the government to look into these cable monopolies. If we level out the playing field, many of the problems may solve themselves. Net neutrality may come at the cost of “zero rating” access, but hopefully by the time net neutrality laws are necessary in a developing country, the Internet will be more readily available. No matter where you are in the world, I call upon you to keep the discussion of net neutrality going. If you live in the United States, Save the Internet has some fantastic references you can use to reach out to give your opinion. It is important that every country support net neutrality, so if you are outside the United States and have the means, try to reach out to the proper authorities and give your opinion as well. Share this information with your friends, family, and everyone you know as this is an issue that effects us all. The Internet was created free and it needs to remain free! Let’s keep it that way!
Important Note: It is important to remember that this is my personal opinion. As with any opinion, it may or may not reflect the opinion of any organization I am associated with.