Over the last few weeks, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has received millions of comments protesting the agency’s proposal to reverse Obama-era rules protecting so-called net neutrality.
The idea behind net neutrality is an egalitarian belief that internet access is a human right that everyone should have equal access to. The idea is to legislate equal treatment for all websites and apps on the internet.
The three core principles of net neutrality are:
Internet service providers (ISPs) may not block access to websites
ISPs may not throttle (slow down) access to websites
ISPs may not demand payments from websites in exchange for faster access or higher quality.
Without net neutrality, proponents argue, your internet service provider (ISP) will be able to dictate which websites you can visit. It will be able to offer faster service for companies willing to pay higher fees. And it will be able to sell your personal data to the highest bidder, including the NSA and other law enforcement agencies.
But in today’s supposedly net neutral environment, all these practices are already occurring. An FCC final decision (due later this year) to end net neutrality won’t materially impact any of them. And there are workarounds for internet users who are impacted by any of these practices.
Net Neutrality Won’t End Internet Censorship
Internet censorship is already a fact of life. For starters:
The Digital Millennium Copyright Act criminalizes the creation and distribution (e.g., on the internet) of tools that could be used to circumvent copyright protection.
Betting on sports online is banned nationwide, thanks to a 2002 federal appeals court ruling.
The Children's Online Privacy Protection Act requires website administrators in certain cases to obtain the permission of parents or guardians of children under the age of thirteen before giving those children access to certain content.
The Children's Internet Protection Act requires schools and libraries that receive federal funds to prevent youth under the age of eighteen from accessing inappropriate websites.
Sure, it’s possible that in the future, your ISP could go beyond these legal mandates and prohibit access to materials it deems inappropriate. For instance, without net neutrality, Verizon could prevent you from accessing www.hillaryclinton.com – or any other website, for that matter.
Fortunately, there’s an easy way around such prohibitions. It’s called the free market. If you don’t approve of your ISP’s policies, nothing prevents you from choosing another one. Competition ensures that companies won’t be able to discriminate against particular websites.
What if they do anyway? Even if you’d rather not change ISPs, there’s an easy solution, called a virtual private network (VPN). With a VPN, all that your ISP (or anyone monitoring your internet use) sees is a connection to the VPN itself. It doesn’t know what websites you’re visiting. There are hundreds of VPNs to choose from. Here at The Nestmann Group, we use Cryptohippie.
Companies and Consumers Using More Bandwidth Should Pay More
What about faster service for individuals and companies willing to pay higher fees? That already happens for internet users in today’s net-neutral world. In my home city of Phoenix, for instance, here are the pricing tiers for Cox Communications:
Cox Internet Starter –up to 5 megabytes/second (Mbps): $29.99/mo.
Cox Internet Essential – up to 15 Mbps: $39.99/mo.
Cox Internet Preferred 100 – up to 100 Mbps: $59.99/mo.
Cox Internet Ultimate – up to 300 Mbps: $79.99/mo.
This pricing model is very straightforward. If you want faster access, you pay more.
Yet, companies like Netflix that create online content support net neutrality. They fear that unless they’re willing to pay more, ISPs will throttle access to their services, because they consume so much bandwidth.
So what? Like individual consumers, websites that consume a lot of bandwidth should pay more. After all, it costs ISPs more to give access to streaming content.
Sure, it’s possible that Netflix will pass the added costs on to subscribers. And why shouldn’t they? Once again, I’m not at all upset that consumers who stream bandwidth-heavy services like Netflix might pay more than consumers who don’t.
ISPs Already Sell Your Data
In today’s net-neutral world, companies like AT&T already spy on their customers. They assemble enormous databases on their browsing records and sell that data to police and government agencies. What’s more, AT&T has been doing it for at least 30 years. Indeed, on April 3, President Trump signed a bill that overturned restrictions on data sharing by ISPs.
Ending net neutrality won’t worsen this practice. But it will avoid the need for the government to install hardware and software that monitor ISPs to ensure compliance with net neutrality. Do you really trust Uncle Sam not to take advantage of this access to spy on your online activities?
Once again, if you don’t want your ISP – or the government – spying on you, use a VPN.
The bottom line: with or without net neutrality, if you want protection when you’re online, you’ll need to do it yourself.