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On Net Neutrality

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Introduction

With Ajit Pai and the Republican led FCC removing net neutrality regulations in the USA, there is a lot of debate about what this all means and how it will affect our Internet. Another question will be whether other jurisdictions like here in Canada follow suite. The Net Neutrality regulations in the USA were introduced by Barack Obama in 2015 to combat some bad practices by Internet Service Providers (ISPs) that were also cable companies. Namely they were trying to kill off streaming services like NetFlix to preserve their monopoly on TV content via their pay by channel model. Net Neutrality put a stop to that by requiring all data over the Internet’s pipes be treated equally. Under net neutrality streaming services blossomed and thrived. Are they now too big to fail? Can new companies have any chance to succeed? Will we all be paying more for basic Internet? Let’s look at the desires of the various players and see what hope we have for the Internet.

Evil Cable Companies

The cable companies want to maintain their cable TV channel business model where they charge TV channels to be part of their packages and then charge the consumers for getting them (plus the consumer has to pay by watching commercials). With the Internet people are going around the cable companies with various streaming services. The cable company charges a flat (high) monthly charge for Internet access usually based on maximum allowable bandwidth. What the cable companies don’t like is that people are switching in droves to streaming services like NetFlix, Amazon Prime or Crave. Like the music companies fighting to save CD sales, they are fighting a losing battle, just pissing off their customers and probably accelerating their decline.

So what do the Cable companies want? They want a number of things. One is to have a mechanism to stifle new technologies and protect their existing business models. This means monitoring what people are doing and then blocking or throttling things they don’t like. Another is to try to make up revenue on the ISP side as cable subscription revenue declines. For this they want more of an App market where you buy or subscribe to bundles of apps to get your Internet access. They see what the cell phone manufacturers are doing and want a piece of that action.

The cable companies know that most people have very limited choices and that if the few big remaining cable and phone companies implement these models then consumers will have no choice but to comply.

Evil Cell Phone Companies

Like the cable companies, the phone companies want to protect their existing business models. To some degree the world has already changed on them and they no longer make all their money charging for long distance phone calls. Instead they charge rather exorbitant fees for cell phone Internet access. Often due to mergers the phone and cable companies are one and the same. So the phone companies often have the same Interests as the cable companies. Similarly to the cable companies without net neutrality, the phone companies can start to throttle services they feel compete with their own services like Skype and Facetime. They also want the power to kill any future technologies that threaten them.

Evil Internet Companies

The big Internet companies like Google and Facebook claim they promote net neutrality. But their track record isn’t great. Apple invented the App market which Google happily embraced for Android. Many feel the App market is as big a threat to the Internet as the loss of Net Neutrality. Instead of using a general Internet browser, the expectation is that you use a collection of Apps on your phone. This adds to the cost of startups since they need to produce a website and then  both a iOS and Android App for their service. Apps are heavily controlled by the Apple and Google App stores. Apps that Apple or Google don’t like are removed. This way Apple and Google have very strong control on stifling new innovative companies that they feel threatened by. Similarly companies like Facebook or Netflix that have the resources to create lots of Apps for all sorts of platforms, so they aren’t really fighting for Net Neutrality so much as ensuring their apps run on all sorts of TV set top boxes and other device platforms. They don’t mind so much paying extra fees as this all raises the cost of entry for future competitors.

Evil Government

Why is the government so keen to eliminate Net Neutrality? The main thing is control. Right now the Internet is like the wild west and they are scared they don’t have sufficient control of it. They want to promote the technologies like deep packet inspection that the ISPs are working on. They would like to be able to be a man in the middle in secure communications and monitor everything. They would love to be able to remove sites from the Internet. I think many western governments are looking jealousy at what China does with their Great Firewall and would love the same control. In the early days of the telephone the dangers of government abuse were recognized and that is why they put in laws that required search warrants from judges to tap or trace phone calls. Now the government has fought hard to not require the same oversight on Internet monitoring. They see the removal of Net Neutrality as their opening to working with a few large ISPs to gain much better monitoring and control of the Internet.

The mandate of the government is to provide some corporate oversight to avoid monopolistic abuses of power. They have failed in this by allowing such a large consolidation of ISPs to very few companies and then refusing to regulate or provide any checks and balances over this new monopoly. As long as the government is scared of the Internet and considers it in its best interest to restrict it, things don’t look good.

Pirates and Open Source to the Rescue

So far that looks like a lot of power working to control and regulate the Internet. What are some ways to combat that? Especially if there is very little competition in ISPs due to all the mergers that have taken place. Let’s look at a few alternatives.

Competition

Where there is competition, take the time to read reviews and shop around. Often you will get better service with a smaller provider. Even if it costs a bit more, factor in whether you get better privacy and more freedom in your Internet access. Really just money controls these decisions and a consumer revolt can be very powerful. Also beware of multi-year contracts that make it hard to change providers (assuming you actually have a choice).

VPN

in many countries VPNs are already illegal. That could happen in North America. But if it does it will greatly restrict people’s ability to work at home. As long as you can use a VPN you have some freedom and privacy. However note that most VPNs don’t have the bandwidth to use streaming video services and would likely be throttled if they did.

The Dark Net

Another option is the darknet and setting up Tor nodes and using the Onion browser. The problem here is that it’s too technical for most people and mostly used for criminal enterprises. But if things start to get really bad due to the loss of Net Neutrality, more development will go into these technologies and they could become more widespread.

Peer to Peer

BitTorrent has shown that a completely distributed peer to peer network is extremely hard to disrupt. Governments and major corporations have spent huge amounts of time and money trying to take down BitTorrent sites used to share movies and other digital content. Yet they have failed. It could be that the loss of Net Neutrality will drive more development into these technologies and force a lot of services to abandon the centralized server model of Internet development. After all if your service comes from millions of IP addresses all over the world then how does an ISP throttle that?

Use Browsers not Apps

If you access web sites more from Browsers than Apps then you are helping promote an open and free Internet. If there isn’t an app store involved it can help keep services available. The good thing is that the core technologies in the Mozilla and WebKit browsers is open source so creating and maintaining Browsers isn’t under the control of a small group of companies. Chromium and Firefox are both really good open source browsers that run on many operating systems and devices.

Summary

Will the loss of Net Neutrality in the USA destroy the Internet? Only time will tell. But I think we will start to see a lot of news stories (if they aren’t censored) over the coming years as the large ISPs start to flex their muscles. We saw the start of this with the throttling of streaming services that caused Net Neutrality to be enacted and we’ll see those abuses restored fairly quickly.

At least in the western world these sorts of bad government decision making can be overridden by elections, but it takes a lot of activism to make changes given the huge amounts of money the cable and phone companies donate to both political parties.

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Written by smist08

December 19, 2017 at 7:22 pm

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