What a Non-Neutral Internet Might Look Like
08 April 2017
Verizon and Time Warner Cable (now Spectrum after a merger) have stated that they are committed to an open and unfettered Internet. However, recent practices such as zero-rating have started to bring those statements into question and show the possibility of the first cracks in net neutrality in the U.S. Already, services that provide access to only a small collection of websites exist. We can also look to the UK, where one ISP has taken things further by throttling (slowing down) certain types of traffic, imposing data caps, and selling Internet packages with varying privileges. This bears a strong similarity to how cable TV is sold, where the number of channels you can watch depends on the cable package you subscribe to, and where some networks such as HBO are often available only at an extra cost. China, which is well known for its restricted Internet, is another example of what a non-neutral Internet can look like.
Although net neutrality has improved since, UK laws at one point allowed broadband Internet providers to impose any limits on Internet connections as long as they were transparent about the limits they had in place. In 2009, some UK providers took advantage of those laws to develop heavily restricted Internet packages. One major provider, called BT, slowed down things including streaming video, much to the annoyance of the BBC which had a new streaming service in place for streaming BBC shows online. They also throttled other services and would cap data and speeds of what they classified as “heavy users”. There were three plans offered to BT customers. The first allowed 10GB per month of data use with heavy throttling (for perspective, in 2012 the average monthly Internet use in the U.S. was 52GB per month). It also limited monthly video streaming. The second plan had 20GB of data allowed, still with heavy usage throttling. The third was an unlimited plan which still included throttling for “heavy use”. Of course, with a better plan came a higher monthly cost. The alternative was to switch to another service provider, which in the UK was less of a problem than it is in the U.S. because the UK has much more competition when it comes to Internet service. Other than the unlimited plan, the plans offered by BT would not have provided enough data for the average U.S. household in 2012, and would have made services such as Netflix a rarity due to the limits and throttling of streaming video.
China, which is well known for its heavily restricted Internet, is another demonstration of a non-neutral Internet. Internet users in China are separated from the rest of the world by what’s known colloquially as “The Great Firewall of China” which as of 2015 blocked access to some 3,000 websites. The list of blocked websites included Google, Yahoo, and Twitter as well as a variety of news sites and other services. China’s Internet is so restrictive (and due to alleged state-sponsored hacking) that in 2010, Google even considered shutting down their operations in China. In fact, this website (thenaterhood.com) was blocked in China for a while - and after the posting of this article may be blocked again because websites that criticize the government or Chinese censorship are typically blocked automatically based on their content (you can check if it’s blocked here). Certain things such as mentions of Tiananmen are a surefire way for a site to get blocked. In order to provide a relatively modern Internet, there are state-sponsored social media sites as alternatives to the Facebook and Twitter of the rest of the world. While The Great Firewall of China makes it difficult to access a lot of information that the Chinese government deems distasteful, it isn’t perfect. Using services such as VPN - which have been blocked on and off as well - it is possible to access websites that are blocked. However, doing so can attract the attention of authorities. What can make these restrictions more frustrating is that certain sites are sometimes allowed and other times are not depending on where in China you happen to be and depending on current events in the world.
In the U.S., it’s unlikely that websites would be all-out blocked on a non-neutral Internet. In particular, due to freedom of speech and freedom of the press guaranteed by the Constitution, it’s extremely unlikely that there would be widespread state-sponsored censorship of the Internet. However, service providers can encourage the use of other services through data caps and zero-rating or sell packages of websites or services. That would mean that instead of buying a speed of access, you might buy a “gaming” package for an extra cost or a “investing” package for access to financial news sites. This is something that is already happening from U.S. based companies. Some services like Facebook Free Basics (formerly Internet.org) - which are not sold in the U.S. currently - provide access only to a list of specific websites. If larger ISPs start to provide similar service tiers, there is no escape due to the lack of competition. Despite their claims to the contrary, mainstream Internet providers have already started to do this. Verizon and AT&T have been named in net neutrality lawsuits for encouraging the use of their own services over others. What’s worse is that the FCC no longer wants to protect consumers from these practices, so a non-neutral Internet may be coming.