How Net Neutrality is Being Undermined

16 March 2017

By paying for an Internet connection - almost any Internet connection - it’s possible to get access to every piece of information and every viewpoint on Earth. It’s also possible through that connection to publish your own views across the Internet for no extra cost. What comes with this are certain privacy protections from your ISP (Internet Service Provider), which is important given that your Internet provider can see most of the things you do online. However, none of these are guaranteed rights. The FCC has minimal powers to enforce net neutrality, thanks to a previous rule change by Congress and currently calls net neutrality “a mistake.” Service providers also have the ability to discourage the use of certain services through practices like zero-rating and data caps, which starts to limit your online world to that which your service provider approves of.

In the past, one of the biggest problems faced by net neutrality from a legal standpoint was a lack of enforcement. FCC penalties for violating net neutrality regulations have been fairly minimal where they are listed at all. Previous legal precedents even say that ISPs don’t need to pay fines they weren’t warned about - which means even when the FCC chooses to impose penalties, because there are no specific penalties in the regulations, ISPs can easily avoid them. Service providers already work around those penalties by carefully wording practices like zero-rating, explaining data caps as network constraints (they have nothing to do with that), and by lobbying Congress. The current FCC has worse ideas about net neutrality regulations. The current FCC head has referred to net neutrality as “a mistake” and has already started to dismantle privacy and transparency requirements.

Zero-rating is already in play from Internet providers, which encourages customers to use one service over another. By making agreements with content providers such as Netflix or the NFL, providers offer access to online content that doesn’t count against data limits. It’s hard to complain about free data (if you happen to use the zero-rated services), which makes this practice particularly nefarious. In general, it looks good to consumers but it helps open the door for an Internet where providers discourage using services other than the ones they zero-rate. By encouraging the use of their own services over others, Internet providers create a walled garden which means the access you have to information is determined by which ISP you have access to. In a world of apps for every possible purpose, this can also mean Internet providers are able to control what features apps are able to provide by blocking access to some of the online resources they can access.

ISPs taking control over what online services people can access is happening with services like Facebook Free Basics, which provides access only to a collection of websites approved by Facebook. Other free Internet providers such as Google Fiber have yet to directly do anything against net neutrality, but in a non-neutral Internet it would be within their rights to offer the same type of curated service. We can already see the effects of this walled garden approach to Internet access by looking at countries where Facebook Free Basics is a major service provider. Millions of Facebook users connected with the service don’t know there is an Internet beyond Facebook, according to a 2015 survey.

Something that makes net neutrality a difficult battle is that a non-neutral Internet is profitable for both ISPs and massive online services. While Google, for example, may claim they support net neutrality, they have little to lose if net neutrality is overturned and appear to only be making minimal efforts to support the cause. Large services and content providers can afford agreements with ISPs to provide better access to their services, something that is already happening, while small competitors don’t have the same resources. This means it’s far more difficult to start a new online service, while existing services continue to grow. No matter how net neutrality is undermined or what form a non-neutral Internet takes, consumers are the ones who lose because it’s their access to information, choices, and reasonable prices that is in danger.

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