December 14, 2017: Federal Communications Commission voted to allow the creation of ‘Internet Fast-Lanes’ by repealing Obama Administration Net Neutrality policies.
The former policy prevented companies from favoring sites and services they owned or from throttling and blocking competitors. This new deregulation allows Internet Service Providers to reduce loading times for websites they prefer and at the same time slowing or outright blocking websites other sites at their whim. The only caveat to this policy change is that these Internet Service Providers must publicly disclose which sites and services are sped up, throttled, or denied access.
The repeal in net neutrality will inevitably result in a reduction of free speech by way of massive media conglomerates or even independent service providers favoring their own proprietary news sources, streaming services, social media or other communication properties.
From Slate we can see examples of what modern life is like in countries without internet neutrality. A user in Guatemala described how it is common practice to have two SIM cards, one that is used specifically for the WhatsApp messaging service, and another for Facebook because of restrictions from data providers. California State Representative Rohit Khanna tweeted a data package advertisement from Portugal. This will be what a typical post-neutrality contract will look like in the future.
Data types are split up into different categories: Messaging (WhatsApp, Skype, iMessage, FaceTime, etc) Social Media (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, Facebook Messenger, Tumblr, Indeed, and Pinterest) Video (Youtube, Netflix, Periscope, Twitch) Music (Spotify, Soundcloud, Pandora) Email & Cloud Storage (Gmail, Yahoo, Amazon Cloud, iCloud). These “site packages” are sold at a fixed rate, rather than charging by data spent, choosing that the minimally data-consuming email services should be worth as much as data-intensive video streaming services.
While this alone is not a massive reduction of free speech, these package plans will increase cost of access for information and the ability to publish your own thoughts and ideas. This is less than ideal for any society that believes in free speech and expression.
With the repeal of Net Neutrality also comes “fast lanes” and preferential service to certain sites. While a company providing free access or faster access to another they already own is not necessarily wrong. Many AT&T users in the United States already enjoy waived data usage if they already have a DirectTV contract. It makes sense for companies to try to consolidate customers from one existing service to another, especially if an incentive is provided. This does have the unfortunate effect of a user more likely only being exposed to media that is contracted with DirectTV, but does not restrict their access to those other sources.
Larger threats to free speech start to spring up when data providers decide to restrict access to sites owned by their competition. Examples of this can be seen in a 2013 Federal Communications Commission case study where AT&T attempted to restrict the use of FaceTime video calling service on their cellular network. FaceTime developers argued that the decision would stifle future application and put doubts on the financial reliability of AT&T, and that it is up to the carrier to have infrastructure that can handle the growing bandwidth needs of the public. AT&T argued that it should retain the right to manage how data flows through their servers.
The FCC ruled in favor of the FaceTime developers in this case, but the issue still stands as an example where Internet Service Providers will attempt to block access to third-party services. While this could be considered as “innocent” as keeping users from abandoning the primary phone plan, the practice opens the door to blocking any non-proprietary calling, video chat, social media services and competitor websites. Then taking into consideration the nature of consolidating power, this could lead to attempts at blocking media sources or opposition groups. Worse, even attempting to withhold information from the public during elections or attempting to sway policy decisions, all the while reducing the ways customers can communicate with each other.
If this sounds like fear-mongering or a slippery slope fallacy, there stands some strong precedent for this behavior. Canadian service provider Telus blocked pro-union sites from their web service during a labor dispute. Verizon even attempted to sneak into journalism with a tech journal called Sugarstring. The tech blog according to Verge, was financially by Verizon’s corporate marketing team and “[…] prohibiting contracted authors rom writing about topics like domestic surveillance or net neutrality.”
Currently, Net Neutrality rules have been completely removed by the FCC, but many of the practices have not gone into place. Whether our free speech will be nickeled and dime’d away or one site throttled or blocked at a time is yet to be seen.
Photo by: Rohit Khanna @RoKhanna (Twitter)