Net Neutrality: Freedom of Information, or Business Rights?

Over the past few months we have talked about dangers lurking on the internet. Big data and the rise of AI along with the existence of “fake” news are just a couple rising concerns on the internet. But did these topics change your online behavior? Probably not. If anything, hopefully, you have become a little more critical of the information you provide to sites and the information you gather from sites. But for most of us, the benefits of the internet still outweigh the risk.

From work to home life, research, school, and leisure, the internet is filled with boundless possibilities and even required for most of our daily lives. As we return to work from a brief holiday break and try to catch up on email, many of us are caught in an email avalanche. Our always on, always connected lifestyle has turned holiday trips, business trips, and so-called vacations into a Frankenstein-ed “Obli-cation”  filled with work and pleasure. The new online trend is more about going off-line while at the same time, the internet has a way of keeping us together. Facebook, Google Duo, Apple’s Facetime, and Skype are indispensable during the holidays, letting us talk to and see family members from across the world. Perhaps, it is time to accept the internet is not going away. Unless it does.

“Fake news” hype claiming services would be partitioned out. Not wrong, but there is little evidence that this would happen.

As FCC Chairman Ajit Pai states, this year will “end with bang” one way or another. Hidden in his monthly blog about the new “Blue Alerts” and a vote in December to change wireless phone provider’s towers to comply with historical preservation laws is a vague hint at changes to the internet that will be voted on as well. Awkwardly titled “Restoring Internet Freedom,” the proposed changes may have a dramatic effect on the way you use and pay for the internet. In the news currently, it being called the repeal of “Net Neutrality.”

So what does this mean, and what could change? There are a lot of analogies out there, but the simplest may be to consider your internet connection like a highway with “lanes” – also called your bandwidth. Bandwidth is the heart of the internet. It is how your request for Facebook or Netflix is delivered to your device. Currently, this highway of traffic operates without any rules except a speed limit. On Charter’s Spectrum service and Verizon’s Wireless Service in Wyoming, this limit is roughly 60 Mbps download and 6 Mbps upload – known as asymmetrical service; an alternative would be the same speed for upload and download (symmetrical). This is a not a guarantee, but the theoretical maximum speed. It allows you to download and stream your favorite movies and music while posting on Instagram but limits your upload capacity to save more lanes for the downloading.

Altering or limiting the speed is well within the purview of your internet company under the current rules. What the new ruling is about is giving internet service providers the option to create slow lanes, fast lanes, and other lanes just like on a highway. For example, this would allow Amazon a clearer path to your PC while Bob and John’s Online Emporium would be stuck in the stop-and-go general traffic. There are a lot of viral claims as well which tell you “what the internet will look like without net neutrality,” but be wary of the sources. Some of these claims illustrate possible outcomes, but no one truly knows what might happen.

Cartoon by Minnesota Star Tribune illustrator Steve Sack.

Hundreds of businesses and online services have come out against the proposed change, and with good reason. Recall our previous month’s newsletter where we explained how these companies make their money – advertising. With speed of specific sites limited or traffic diverted to competitors, these ad revenues could decline, dramatically, if your access to a site is limited. In fact, many of these businesses’ entire business model hinges on your free and unfettered access to their site. But companies have other options to gain the money you generate. Remember what you see on the internet is not free and unfettered, it is highly controlled and whoever can figure out the algorithm best, wins. Facebook and Google are not your friends in this conversation, they simply like things the way the are currently.

The entire proposed rule change weighs in at 210 pages; to reduce it down to a simple argument about freedom of information or rights of businesses and individuals is too basic. However, at the proposal’s heart is redefining the internet back to an information service rather than classification like a utility. The implication is clear. As a utility, the ruling creates basic standards for service as well as defining what service is e.g. high-speed internet can only be advertised as such if it is faster than 25 Mbps download and 4 Mbps upload and initiatives have been created to improve service to rural areas. It other words, currently the internet is treated like your sewer and gas lines, not as a luxury.

FCC Chairman Pai and other supporters of the repeal of this model believe it hinders innovation and better development by the companies that provide internet access. And, there is some evidence of this. When was the last time your gas company had a new, great product or service option that altered your choice of providers? Probably never. For most people, when Choice Gas season starts it’s only about finding the lowest price.

But what if Choice Gas was not a choice? What if your gas provider was the only provider? Consumer power is related to consumer choice – without choice, you have little power. When it comes to the internet, few of us have many choices. Cable lines in cities are leased by one company – in much of Wyoming this is Charter. Phone lines, for DSL, are leased by another company or owned outright. Choice is not often there. In Laramie, the difference between cable and DSL internet can be huge – 60Mbps to 7 Mbps download. Netflix states it requires 5 Mbps download for HD. So, if you have DSL, you better not have any other devices using any of the limited 7 Mbps or your video will suffer.

The ACLU claims the new ruling will allow internet providers to manipulate certain data streams – and this is not wrong. With the example of Netflix and DSL-speed internet, it is theoretically possible for the DSL provider to take a big payment from Hulu as compensation for limiting the speed of Netflix so your maximum speed is never the required 5 Mbps – and this has already happened in some instances. However, for the most part this has to do with the limiting of torrent or peer-to-peer traffic which is often dominated by illegal content sharing, not mainstream internet.

Screenshot of tracert command illustrating the routing points passed through to get to from Laramie, WY.

The new push for innovation from internet providers is about dealing with the surge in streaming services. Your Netflix, Hulu, and Spotify services are now the primary traffic source on the internet highway. And this highway is not getting larger very fast, and it is more complex than “going to a website.” When you access your favorite site, your request is sent from your computer to the local routing station then down the line to another and another and another until it finally gets to the website and works its way back. But during the course of this travel, your request has probably crossed from your internet provider to another to another and another, all of whom you have not paid.

The network stations and telecommunication lines – fiber optic lines – that make up the backbone of the internet are not cheap. When combined with the fact that more and more people are dropping cable television, accessing the internet, and using more and more of the bandwidth available, there is a real problem. Cable companies and their networks are being pushed harder than ever to provide more while costs, expensive as they might be, have not risen dramatically or at the rate of internet usage over time.

In the 1990’s, internet required a phone line and an internet provider like AOL. Combined, this might have cost roughly $50/month while today on Century Link’s website you can have internet access for $45/month for as long as you want – no price increases, they claim. But consider the infrastructure and network capabilities you have access to now versus then – streaming a video at 56kbps dial-up would never happen. How do they pay for this?

Regulation, freedom, free markets, and consumer rights are at the heart of this conversation. For us, this means a conversation about the true role of the internet in our lives and those in the rest of the country. If internet access is becoming a necessity for daily life, can we accept the treatment and innovation that comes with this? Or is the internet a luxury providing cutting edge speed and service? Who loses, and what will they lose when many of our citizens cannot afford access?

According to the ACLU, another major component of net neutrality is concerned with privacy and the ability of your internet provider and the government to “spy” on your traffic. Privacy is a real concern, but let’s step back and recall the issues of big data and AI. For most of us, our entire online lives are accessible, analyzed, and manipulated already – we give up our right to privacy on the internet daily. The conversation that needs to be had is one about fair access, fair choice, a market for the internet, and our true needs and expectations. As always, this problem is one we created (with our need and desire for all things online), and only we can solve it. It’s time we joined the conversation, had a real, open, and honest discussion about our needs and rights while recognizing the role internet providers play and their needs and rights as well. There are very real implications for the internet, how you use it, and your wallet no matter which way the FCC rules next week.

Consider this explanation by Denver’s KUSA reporter Brandon Rittimen: