I’ve been reading a number of summaries of the million plus comments made in the net neutrality docket at the FCC. Since we are sitting today with basically no rules in place on the issue I wondered a bit about what would happen if we never put any effective rules in place. I think we know the answer based upon the behavior of various carriers in the past during times when there were rules in place. Following are some of the most publicized examples of carrier behavior for the past decade in the US and Canada that would be in violation of net neutrality rules:
2005. Madison River Communications, a small telco, blocks customers from using Vonage.
2005. Comcast blocks numerous peer-to-peer sites like BitTorrent.
2005. Telus, the second largest ISP in Canada blocks hundreds of web sites associated with a union they were having disputes with.
2006. AOL blocks emails that contained the words ‘DearAOL’ which is the name of a group that was protesting AOL’s spam policies.
2006. Clearwire Communication and Bell Canada block VoIP from competitors of Clearwire.
2007. T-Mobile blocks customers from using other vendors for VoIP or text messaging.
2007. Both Cisco and Nokia announce products that make it easy for ISPs to block specific web traffic. While this in itself not a violation, I think it demonstrates that these companies found a market demand for blocking of content. I suspect there are a lot of net neutrality violations that never made it to the press.
2008. Apple blocks Skype on iPhones subject to a secret contract with AT&T.
2010. Windstream hijacks search queries using Google Toolbar and Firefox and redirects the searches to its own search engine.
2011. MetroPCS announced it would block all streaming video except YouTube from its 4G platform.
2011. Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile all block Google Wallet from phones in favor of their own payment system called Isis.
2011. Large ISPs like Comcast, AT&T and Verizon are accused of slowing down Netflix.
2012. The FCC caught Verizon Wireless blocking people from using data tethering from their cellphones after the company had promised in 2008 to stop the practice.
2014. Verizon Wireless says it will throttle customers with older unlimited data plans first whenever there is contention on its network.
2014. Virgin Mobile offers plans for access to popular web sites that don’t count against data caps.
I know to me that some of these events, like Comcast blocking peer-to-peer sites feels like ancient history – but this has all happened in the last decade. And this was a decade where the FCC was actively trying to police and stop net neutrality violations. It’s not hard to envision that carriers will go much farther in the next decade if there are no restriction on them. I’ve read estimates that in Europe about 1 in 5 customers is affected in some way by lack of network neutrality rules. I think it’s clear in this country that ISPs large and small will restrict customers’ choices if there is no consequence for doing so.
It’s a slippery slope. But it doesn’t take much to imagine going from Virgin’s plan to give special access to Facebook to ISPs who only give access to certain sites if that makes them more money. The counter-argument to net neutrality is that the market will stop the worst abuses. But the vast majority of us only have access to the Internet through one or two major ISPs, and that makes it nearly impossible for consumers to vote with their feet.