Sunday, July 16, 2017

28.3 - Net neutrality under serious threat

Net neutrality under serious threat

Some warnings
This is something I have talked about in the past but not very recently, but it is of particular importance now: Net neutrality.

If you were online any time on Wednesday, July 12, you may have come across warning screens like those shown here. That's because July 12 was a day of action to defend Net neutrality.

At least 234 websites representing corporations, activist groups, and plain folks spent the day trying to alert anyone who came by to the serious risk that Net neutrality may be killed off. Some of the nation's largest tech companies - such as Microsoft and Google - and some of the biggest online sites - such as Twitter, Snapchat, Netflix, Facebook, and Amazon - took part.

Net neutrality, simply, is the idea that internet service providers (ISPs) treat everyone's data equally; a bit is a bit is a bit and every bit is the same as every other bit - whether that's a bit from an email from your mother, an episode of House of Cards on Netflix, a bank transfer, the day's news on your favorite newspaper's website, or whatever. It means that outfits such as Comcast, AT&T, or Verizon don’t get to say that this data is sent more quickly than that data because those sending this data paid us extra money so all those who waiting for that data will just have to wait and watch the spiral or whatever go around and around. Assuming, of course, that data isn't for a site that has been blocked entirely for failing to come up with enough cash.

Put another way, it's the principle that a handful of giant corporations, riding on the back of technology actually developed by the federal government and some universities, can't manipulate the market - the market in this case being those companies and individuals who use the Internet - can't manipulate the market to line their pockets.

And if the business about "treating all data equally" still isn't clear, think of it this way: It's how your telephone works. All telephone calls are treated the same.

And for obvious reasons, outfits like Comcast, AT&T, and Verizon hate the idea of Net neutrality and have been campaigning, lobbying, and suing against it for years.

Despite some short-term legal victories, they failed. Due to a massive public outpouring of support for Net neutrality, in February 2015, the FCC voted to reclassify broadband service providers as "common carriers" under title II, meaning in effect they are regarded as public utilities, giving the FCC the ability to set rates, open up access to competitors, and more closely regulate the industry - and, most importantly here, to enshrine Net neutrality as law as part of those regulations.

So what's the problem? The problem, in two words, is Ajit Pai. He is the new chair of the FCC whose only work experience outside of government was as general counsel for Verizon and he is full-out for repealing the 2015 regulations, leaving us at the mercy of the corporate overlords for who he used to work. He introduced a rule to do exactly that which is now in the period for public comments.

It is that proposed rollback of the 2015 rules that was the target of the day of action on July 12.

Net neutrality is, to be quite blunt, the spiritual heart, the philosophical core, of the Internet. It is the operating principle on which the Net was founded when it was just a federal agency and a handful of universities and on which it has grown. In fact, it is what enabled it to grow, the fact that it was equally open, and open on an equal basis, to all participants, not just an elite handful of technocrats and technophiles. Yes, of course, it started that way, it started all technocrats and technophiles, but that principle of neutrality insured it was not going to stay that way.

And people know it. In fact, Net neutrality is overwhelmingly popular among Americans.

According to a recent survey from Politico and Morning Consult, 60% of Americans support the current rules and only 17% want to change them.

According to a poll done for Freedman Consulting, the figure is even higher: 77% support keeping the existing Net neutrality rules in place. In both polls, the support was bipartisan, with Democrats, Republicans, and Independents registering similar levels of support.

You want more evidence of how popular Net neutrality is? That July 12 day of action generated an astounding two million comments to the FCC backing it.

It's so popular, in fact, that Pai finds it necessary to claim that he supports "the principle" of net neutrality. He does that without being really clear about what that means and without laying out any means to enforce it except by proposing to turn enforcement over to the Federal Trade Commission - which lacks the authority to make rules and unless Congress proposes an entirely new law - something Pai knows as well as you ain't gonna happen anytime soon - could only enforce vague "principles" and then only on a case-by-case basis in response to a complaint, that is, after something has already gone wrong.

Pai has also, notably, frequently referred to the "open" Internet as if that was supposed to be synonymous with Net neutrality, but it isn't.

Ajit Pai
Back in 2015, at the time the FCC was acting, a former chair of the commission, Michael Powell, who was even more overtly pro-corporate than Pai is, also referred to "open Internet principles," which he defined as "freedom to access content, to run applications, to attach devices, and to obtain service plan information" - "freedoms," which I noted at the time, did not include the freedom to access content on an equal basis without being throttled or otherwise hindered because the site I was trying to access couldn't afford the big bucks that some other site could. In other words, did not include the freedom that was at the very heart of the issue.

Now we have another pro-corporate chair mouthing the same platitudes about an "open" Internet. Extreme caution is called for.

Especially because Pai has defended his desire to service the corporations with some pretty bizarre arguments which would cause most folks' jaws to drop were we not in the age of TheRump.

For example, he has said "we cannot stick with regulations from the Great Depression that were meant to micromanage Ma Bell." I'll just say that the notion that Bell Telephone was "micromanaged" will come as a shock to anyone old enough to remember that the Bell System was broken up in 1984 because it was an illegal monopoly actively stifling competition - or, for that matter, anyone old enough to remember Lily Tomlin.

He also claimed that strong Net neutrality rules in the US would give dictators an excuse to tighten their grip over the Internet in their countries - which I frankly think shouldn't even require a response beyond "Whut?"

And he said that the 2015 rules were established based on "hypothetical harms and hysterical prophecies of doom."

That does require a response, and it's that the fact is, we had already seen those harms. There was nothing hypothetical about them. In 2014, during negotiations over access, Comcast throttled Netflix, slowing transmission speeds by nearly 30% until Netflix agreed to come up with the cash for a so-called "paid peering" deal. That deal and others like it were scuttled by the 2015 regulations, but it doesn't change the fact that the supposedly "hypothetical" harms, paying for access and being throttled when you don't, have already happened.

We have, that is, already seen what will happen if net neutrality goes by the boards. It won't happen all at once, of course, they know better than to spark a backlash even bigger than the actual current proposal to undo Net neutrality, which has gotten over 5 million comments, the vast majority of them negative. But it is what they are after and it is what they will do if not stopped.

The period for public comment on the proposed rule - which again, is to undo the 2015 rules securing Net neutrality - runs through July 18. If there is still time, you might want to drop the FCC a line.

Oh, and if you're wondering why you haven't heard more about this? Part of the reason could be that NBC, CNBC, and MSNBC are all owned by Comcast.

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