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)
I agree wholeheartedly with the concerns the author has raised throughout this post. Repealing net neutrality runs the risk of becoming a slippery slope which allows internet providers to abuse their power and to manipulate, or control, the content that reaches their customers. The author highlights international examples of other similar situations in order to foreshadow the possible future for the United States while contrasting that prediction with historically relevant domestic anecdotes. While the previous case involving AT&T and the makers of FaceTime ended with the FCC supporting net neutrality, the current situation in post neutral America and the previously mentioned comparison allows the reader to imagine how similar instances may play out in the future.
However, I would have appreciated a more in-depth discussion relating to the possible ramifications of the FCC’s decision. How might the internet, as we know it, become irreversibly altered? Might internet service providers, in the near future, be able to control content viewed by their customers in accordance with their own sense of morality or their preferences for quality or their political leanings? These, to name a few, are important questions to be pondered as we event the post-net neutrality period.
Thanks for sharing this post! Your post addresses how free internet laws are critical for free speech and American democracy. You express many similar feelings I have about net neutrality and what the consequences are with repealing it. Net neutrality has been put in place to ensure that internet providers provide access to all content regardless of where it comes from; there is to be no blocking or preferential treatment to any websites.
With the repeal of net neutrality, it would undoubtedly prevent many from accessing free and inexpensive media. The purpose of repealing net neutrality laws is to allow independent service providers selectively give access to people paying more, which, favors the elite and big businesses in our country.
And that is the problem. I agree with your statement that the repeal of net neutrality laws will bring “fast lanes.” As you said, preferential service to specific sites will only give large companies and industries the ability to streamline and provide access to particular things while also limits everyday Americans from equal access to the internet.
I agree with Ian (in the comment above) that it is important to address what would happen further down the line with the repeal of these laws.
This is a serious issue that many lawmakers have been pushing to protect because the ramifications could really hurt American democracy. I actually had the opportunity to work for Ro Khanna this past summer in D.C. when the FCC first announced they were going to vote on repealing the net neutrality laws.
If we allow preferential treatment of certain websites it surpasses freedom of speech but furthermore enables censorship. These particular concepts are essential to American democracy and the perpetuation of them will lead to the erosion of our democracy.
Thank you for drawing attention to this critical issue. Freedom of speech is a key component of democracies worldwide, and as you indicate, freedom of access to the Internet is highly interlinked to free speech issues. By segmenting the Internet based on type and charging different rates for these various types, as data companies in Portugal have done, Internet access in the U.S. will become stratified and more difficult for those with fewer financial resources.
As you mention, the repeal of protections of net neutrality will increase the cost of access to information and place a hard price on the publishing of thoughts and ideas, curtailing the ability of people to freely express their thoughts. Preferential access schemes by Internet service providers (ISPs) create problems for freedom of speech, as they invite these companies to base access on private considerations and effectively censors Internet access. These schemes can be dangerous in consideration of how information has increasingly become a weapon by which people can be manipulated, especially through social media services like Facebook and Twitter. By creating barriers to or specific channels for communication, the removal of protections of free Internet can adversely affect the dissemination of information, further segmenting the population into polarized bubbles that act on different sets of information. Disinformation is powerful, and the interests of ISPs could determine the information that is spread online.
An additional point that has come up in discussions of repealing net neutrality is the effects of these restrictions on innovation. With corporations like AT&T and Verizon having greater control over the Internet, they will be able to charge websites a fee for access to subscribers, curtailing the ability of startup companies to reach potential clients and completely altering the current system. And contrary to the statements of FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, there are real concerns about ISPs blocking certain websites from being able to operate. Therefore, in addition to curtailing free speech, the repeal of net neutrality threatens to concentrate economic power online into the hands of a select few businesses by curbing the ability of new, Internet-based businesses to build up their business.
Net neutrality protections are not a partisan issue: a poll conducted in July 2017 found that approximately 77 percent of a cross-partisan survey group supported the maintenance of net neutrality regulations. The future of the sanctity of the Internet as a space for free expression remains uncertain, especially since it remains unclear whether ISPs will honor their pledges to uphold net neutrality without the presence of those regulations. In fact, the day after the net neutrality rules were repealed in a 3-2 FCC vote, Comcast removed the sections about paid prioritization of websites from its online pledge to uphold net neutrality. With ISPs no longer beholden to uphold the nearly universally-supported values of net neutrality, I find myself agreeing with you: the future of freedom on the Internet is unclear but potentially in danger.