Big Cloud, Big Leverage
07 March 2018
Net neutrality is extremely important in protecting the Internet as it exists today, but it may not go far enough. The guidelines recently struck down by the FCC that preserved net neutrality only apply to Internet Service Providers, the companies that provide access to the Internet. While we need regulatory protection from ISPs due to a lack of competition, we may be forgetting the other side of the cloud; the services we access via our ISPs. Owning a big, widely used cloud means online services have their own leverage over ISP business and customer experiences.
Neutrality as it pertains to online services is distinct from net neutrality, though related. It’s possible for an online service to violate the goals of net neutrality without violating net neutrality. Online services are able to see what ISP their customers come from, assuming they’re not using a VPN service, TOR, or something similar to mask their origin. Using that information, a service could treat visitors on a particular ISP (or in a particular region, or on a particular device) differently. Services on the scale of Facebook or Netflix could use their massive user-base as leverage to get what they wanted from an ISP.
A website could change the experience for users of a particular ISP in any number of ways, including throttling or degrading its service. While it might seem odd that a service might intentionally make its site work poorly, that has happened. In 2016, Netflix was caught throttling traffic and degrading video quality for customers accessing its site on mobile AT&T and Verizon, but not for customers using Sprint or T-Mobile. It’s not clear what Netflix was trying to accomplish by throttling its own service on two of the four major U.S. mobile networks, though the company was careful to avoid using the word “throttling” in its explanation. Netflix claimed that its throttling was an effort to take better care of its customers by helping them stream more without using up their data plans.
The fact that net neutrality only cuts in one direction isn’t necessarily an accident. When Google first explained the goals of net neutrality in the FCC’s broadband Internet proceedings, the company explained that neutrality rules were only needed for ISPs. According to Google, only Internet Service Providers, not online services, had the ability and the incentive to manipulate Internet traffic. The idea that websites wouldn’t have similar incentives and abilities was likely untrue then, and isn’t true now as Netflix proved with their throttling.
While concern that ISPs are becoming less competitive and more likely to violate neutrality principles as they get larger is valid, we need to take into account the fact that online giants have the same abilities and some of the same problems. Unfortunately, the current net neutrality tends to focus only on ISPs, though not necessarily unfairly as neutrality for Internet providers is a more pressing and active issue.
With or without net neutrality guidelines that regulate ISP practices, online giants can legally violate net neutrality goals. To what end, it’s hard to tell. Netflix claimed it throttled its services on AT&T and Verizon in order to benefit its customers, but could have used the same practice to push customers who frequently streamed Netflix away from AT&T or Verizon. This can matter on a massive scale when services like Facebook, which boasts 1.4 billion active daily users (and over 2 billion active monthly users), want to make a deal with an Internet provider. Services could choose to be faster on the ISP that paid the most for their higher speeds, leaving anyone on other ISPs in a different kind of Internet slow lane.
Internet giants may not have chosen to exploit this yet, but Netflix’s statements on its 2016 throttling is somewhat telling. The company told the Journal that “historically those two companies [that Netflix wasn’t throttling] have had more consumer-friendly policies.” From a pure net neutrality standpoint, it’s tempting to applaud Netflix’s actions (especially in light of that statement) because Verizon and AT&T have been against the net neutrality movement. However, forcing a different experience on customers based on their ISP, when most people are limited to few providers, or trying to leverage a deal out of an ISP, is problematic and violates the goals of net neutrality.