Why We Need Network Neutrality

Network_neutrality_poster_symbolWhile the FCC has been making noise about finding a way to beef up net neutrality, the fact is that the courts have gutted it and ISPs are more or less free today to do whatever they want. In March, Barbara van Schewick, a Stanford professor had several ex parte meetings with the FCC and left behind a great memo describing the current dilemma with trying to rein in network neutrality violations.

In this memo she describes some examples of bad behavior by US and British ISPs. While she highlights some well-known cases of overt discrimination by ISPs, she believes the fact that the FCC has actively intervened over the last decade in such cases has held the ISPs at bay. But now, unless the FCC can find some way to put the genie back into the bottle there are likely to be many more examples of ISPs discriminating against some portions of web traffic.

Certainly ISPs have gotten a lot bolder lately. Comcast essentially held Level3 and Netflix hostage by degrading their product to point of barely working in order to extract payments out of them. And one can now imagine AT&T and Verizon doing the same thing to Netflix and all of the ISPs then turning to other big content providers like Amazon and Facebook and demanding the same kind of payments. It seems that we have now entered a period where it’s a pay-for-play network since the FCC did nothing about the issue.

The US is not the only place in the world that has this issue. We don’t have to look at the more extreme places like China to see how this might work here. Net neutrality violations are pretty common in Europe today. A report in 2012 estimated that one on five users there was affected by ISP blocking. The things that have been blocked in Europe are across the board and include not only streaming services, but voice services like Skype, peer-to-peer networks, Amazon cloud services, gaming, alternate email services and instant messaging.

If we don’t find a way to get net neutrality under control the Internet is going to become like the wild-west. ISPs will slow down large bandwidth users that won’t pay them. They will block anybody who is doing too good of a job of competing against them. The public will be the ones who suffer from this, but a lot of the time they won’t even know it’s being done to them.

I don’t know anybody who thinks the FCC has the courage to take the bold steps needed to fix this. The new Chairman talks all the right talk, but there has been zero action against Comcast for what they did to Netflix. I imagine that the ISPs are still taking it a little easy because they don’t want to force the FCC to act. But the FCC’s threats of coming down on violators are going to sound hollow as each day passes and nothing happens.

Professor van Schewick points out that absent strong rules from the FCC that there is no other way to police network neutrality. Some have argued that antitrust laws can be used against violators. But in the memo she demonstrates that this is not the case and that antitrust law is virtually worthless as a tool to curb ISP abuses.

It’s not just the big ISPs we have to worry about. There are a lot of smaller ISPs in the country in the form of telcos, cable companies, municipalities and WISPs. It’s not hard to picture some of the more zealous of these companies blocking things for political or religious reasons. One might assume that the market would act to stop such behavior, but in rural America there are a whole lot of people who only have one choice of ISP.

I hope that things don’t get as bad as I fear they might and that mostly common sense will rule. But as ISPs violate the no-longer functional net neutrality rules and nothing happens they are going to get bolder and bolder over time.

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