Saturday, December 16, 2017

What is Net Neutrality?

The Internet - whether you consider it a place, a tool, a virtual world, a loyal friend with benefits, or anything else that comes to your mind – is a repository of human knowledge concerning all things that matter and those that are literally useless. It is almost like the biggest imaginable library to which everyone contribute; the only difference it has with a real library is that you actually visit the Internet.

Without a doubt the Internet means something to everyone and everything; Net Neutrality makes sure of it. Journalism finds it easier to report news in real time anytime; entertainment industry has another medium to provide multimedia contents in addition to television; businesses can communicate and complete transactions more quickly; the society has dependable platform to organize events, campaigns, or discussions; divorced people can look for new dates instantly; and you can watch videos of cats or people with no clothes on almost all day every day.

In 2015, the government or more specifically the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) set a regulation under which all ISPs (Internet Service Providers) were explicitly required to treat Internet contents equally. There should not be discrimination against any specific content regardless of market competitions. For example if you want to watch Batman & Robin on Netflix, the rules of Net Neutrality dictate that neither your ISP nor specific server through which the movie is streamed can block the content or even just slightly reduce the streaming quality even if they hate the idea that George Clooney is Batman – who does anyway? It was known as Common Carrier rule under Title II of the Communications Act. Some even refer to Net Neutrality as the first amendment of the Internet.

That well-established common carrier rule, however, has now ended because the FCC successfully repealed it on December 14, 2017 despite protests from major industry leaders such as Google, Amazon, Netflix, Reddit, Mozilla, and Twitter as well as millions of individuals who posted protesting comments on FCC website. Despite their differences and competitions, tech companies reacted together on the same side for the benefits of consumers. It was (and still is) as if The Avengers call the Justice League to protest Hollywood.

What is Net Neutrality
If an ISP does not like you, this is what your selfie will look like
In short, net Neutrality makes sure that if you pay for Internet subscription, you get all contents available without any negative interference from your ISP. Think of ISP as the people who own the pipeline in your plumbing system; whether or not you also use water that they provide (and therefore you pay the bill to them), you can take shower as often as you want and as many hours as you think necessary without having to pay more for the delivery service. You’re renting the pipeline, and that’s about it. Even if you use it to distribute milk and honey to your home, there is no need for extra fee.

  • Under the updated rule (or the return to the outdated version), ISPs do not have to slow down internet speed and block specific contents, at least in theory. The problem is that there is no regulation that prevents them from doing so. They have the freedom to discriminate contents, and this is where things can get real ugly.

  • When ISPs have the legal option to block contents, it means they are allowed to analyze and potentially manipulate the data which go through their servers or networks. For example if service providers do not like an image of Sponge Bob you want to download, they can charge more money for it or give you the option to get a poster of Krabby Patty instead.

  • Op-ed reports or educational contents can get blocked if the readers are subscribed to ISPs that have different opinions. Another option is to buy newspapers.

Some groups of people (especially minorities) who rely on the Internet to organize social campaigns will “technically” at the mercy of ISPs permissions to manage activities or promote ideas. Having to buy newspapers is bad, but maybe you can still order it online if that makes sense.

Competitive Market Does Not Guarantee Net Neutrality

In an ideal world competition in the market should prevent ISPs from negating Internet traffic or data delivery, but you don’t live in such a world. There are two reasons:

  • Most Americans do not have access to a handful legitimate high-speed ISPs. In fact, you are lucky if you have more than two broadband subscription options. When one provider wants you to pay more for the contents that you usually watch alone at night with the lights off, perhaps you can switch to another provider as a cheaper alternative. If both providers have the same policies, however, there is no option but to upgrade subscription tier and only when the provider offers it.

  • You will notice when certain contents are blocked, but Internet speed manipulation is trickier to detect. For example when you open two websites at the same time but one of them takes quite longer to download, the first thing that crosses your mind is that the server is down, under maintenance, overheating, or simply on fire. No one will be immediately suspicious if an ISP manipulates the speed.

Remember that even free public Wi-Fi is run and provided by ISPs. When you access Facebook at a coffee shop, it does not mean that the coffee shop also owns the entire Internet infrastructure that delivers footage of your friend’s dreamy but fake vacation to your laptop. The coffee shop pays an ISP for the service. It would make no financial sense for the shop especially if you spend hours there but buy only half a cup of coffee.

Home Wi-Fi or WLAN infrastructure should not be affected to some extent. Accessing contents stored on a NAS (network-attached storage) is almost like using no Internet at all. The contents are already there on a hard-drive that you own, so ISP cannot block them. The lack of Net Neutrality can affect the connection only when you download data through the Internet.

Many big tech companies believe that the battle for free Internet is not over. The repeal of Common Carrier rule on Dec 14, 2017 was only the beginning of longer legal process. You can join the protests and fight for the rights to watch more videos containing explicit scenes too, as long as your ISP does not block your opinions.