What does the end of net neutrality really mean?

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What is net neutrality?

Net neutrality means Internet Service Providers (ISPs) must view all data sent from your computer to websites and all data returned from those websites to your computer as identical. This means that you can pay a single monthly price to Comcast, Time Warner, or AT&T and they are required by law to give you access to every website in existence, including Facebook, Twitter, Netflix and everything else.

For this single monthly price, they are required by law to let you view and download text, photos, videos, word documents, PDFs, music files, and all other types of files. By law, they must let you make phone calls on services like Skype or Google hangouts. They have to let you stream television shows. They have to let you download video games. They must view every piece of content as identical when delivering it to you, no matter what type of content it is or what the source is. In addition, they cannot charge the owners of the content extra money to let you access them, regardless of how large or small these websites are and how much traffic they get. This means Facebook doesn’t have to pay Comcast for you to be able to access it. It also means you don’t have to pay Comcast, Time Warner, and AT&T separately for access to their users.

5 situations that will likely arise if net neutrality is overturned

1.) ISPs will be allowed to charge you to access certain websites

This is the most often stated consequence of net neutrality being overturned. Graphics like this have been floating around the internet for years. If net neutrality is overturned, this could become a reality. However, I don’t think it’s all that likely in the immediate future. The first changes are likely to be because…

2.) ISPs will be allowed to charge website owners to get access to their users

If net neutrality is overturned, ISPs can charge whatever fees they’d like to website owners. Here are a few potential situations that could arise:

  1. You set up a website for your wedding on TheKnot.com. You buy a $10 domain name “JohnAndJessicaSmith.com” to point to it. As of now, everyone can get to your website! If net neutrality is overturned, you could be required to pay $10 to each ISP that you want your website available to. Your parents are on AT&T? Sorry, but they can’t visit your site unless you pay the AT&T fee.
  2. You invent a new product and start a small online business selling it. You set up a website and start making sales. Your product goes viral and now you’re getting thousands of hits. You get a call from a Verizon sales rep. “We’ve noticed you’re getting a lot of traffic from our customers…congratulations! However, you’ve actually passed your free visits quota. If you’d like to keep getting traffic from our x million internet subscribers, we’ll need you to open an account with us at a rate of $x per 1,000 visits”
  3. Comcast owns NBC/Universal, the company that produces Saturday Night Live. It’s pretty well documented that the company has a strong liberal leaning. In the next election cycle, Comcast could require conservative/Republican candidates to pay them millions of dollars to allow Comcast users to visit their campaign websites. This sounds a lot like…

3.) Censorship! ISPs will be able to block access to whatever websites they want, meaning idea/thought censorship with no oversight

A few days ago, a group that supports net neutrality set up the website comcastroturf.com to oppose Comcast allegedly submitting fake anti-neutrality comments to the FCC under its own customers’ names and addresses. Comcast sent a cease-and-desist letter to the owners of the site. If net neutrality was not the current law of the land, Comcast could simply block its users from accessing that site with no legal repercussions. In addition…

4.) ISPs will be able to prevent users from accessing services that compete with theirs, strengthening their monopolies

Pretty much every major ISP offers phone and television service in addition to internet. If a company sees a lot of its customers dropping cable service to just use Netflix and Hulu, then they could just block access to Netflix and Hulu…or charge large amounts of money to get access. Why compete when you can completely destroy a competitor? Do you use Skype instead of a phone line? Or maybe a VOIP service like Vonage? AT&T could block VOIP protocols and you’d have to use their higher priced service or pay a fee.

5.) ISPs will be able to take steps to prevent users from accessing VPNs, thereby removing one of the few remaining privacy methods

Earlier this year, the FCC decided to allow ISPs to sell your internet browsing history. The only real way to get around that is to use a VPN service to encrypt your data to protect yourself. ISPs will be able to slow encrypted traffic to a trickle and block individual VPN connection points, meaning your VPN will likely fail and your browsing history will be available for all the world to buy. I hope it’s clean!

What does this all mean?

While ISPs argue they wouldn’t do any of the above and would be on their best behavior, multiple past court cases and FCC fights show they’ve already pushed the limits of what they can get away with even with neutrality in place:

2005 – Madison River Communications was blocking VOIP services. The FCC put a stop to it.

2005 – Comcast was denying access to p2p services without notifying customers.

2007-2009 – AT&T was having Skype and other VOIPs blocked because they didn’t like there was competition for their cellphones.

2011 – MetroPCS tried to block all streaming except youtube. They actually sued the FCC over this.

2011-2013 – AT&T, Sprint, and Verizon were blocking access to Google Wallet because it competed with their pay services.

2012 – Verizon was demanding google block tethering apps on android because it let owners avoid their $20 tethering fee. This was despite guaranteeing they wouldn’t do that as part of a winning bid on an airwaves auction. They were fined $1.25million over this.

2012 – AT&T tried to block access to FaceTime unless customers paid more money.

2013 – Verizon literally stated that the only thing stopping them from favoring some content providers over other providers were the net neutrality rules in place.

2016 – Netflix already has to pay ISPs to not slow with their traffic to you.

2017 – Time Warner Cable slowed down connections to League of Legends servers, while they were negotiating contracts with Riot in an effort to force Riot into paying TWC money. Spectrum ( bought TWC ) is now being sued by the state of New York over this.

Some argue that competition would prevent ISPs from engaging in any of the above. However, at least 10 percent of Americans have access to only one ISP and therefore will not benefit from competition. This is both from rural areas that only have a single provider as well as many urban and suburban apartment complexes that only offer a single option. Even with two options, collusion is very likely between the companies. There’s a reason we have the term duopoly.

The cable industry (and their $50 million in lobbying money) have continually argued that net neutrality creates overbearing regulations and harms consumers. The previous administration rejected these arguments and had the FCC put in place strong language to support it. However, the currently Republican-led FCC is rapidly moving toward ending net neutrality. This is really sad, as it opposes the free-market ideals Republicans claim to support. While declassifying the internet as a utility and ending net neutrality would not be the end of the world, it is extremely anti-competitive and anti-freedom as it supports cable monopolies and duopolies and allows them unparalleled censorship and price gouging opportunities. While ISPs argue that they would use additional revenue to improve infrastructure and service, they have already shown they don’t care about that by the millions of dollars in dividends they distribute annually in place of infrastructure investment and their consistent bottom rankings on the customer service charts.

Having said all that, the sad part is that very little can be done about it. Millions of pro-neutrality comments have been sent to the FCC, yet nothing has changed in their plans. Politicians still foolishly refer to net neutrality as “Obamacare for the internet.” For better (for the ISPs) or for worse (for every other person and business), it seems the $50 million bought what it was meant to…the destruction of the free internet. That said, you can still do you part by visiting https://www.battleforthenet.com/ and using the form there to send a message to the FCC and congress. I encourage you to do so!