Chances are good that you’ve heard about (and are perhaps tired of hearing about) the concept of net neutrality. This is for good reason. It’s an extremely important topic, and one that can have a profound effect on the future of the Internet.
What is net neutrality?
Net neutrality is, as the name implies, the neutral and equal treatment of Internet data by service providers. A neutral Internet is one where different websites or types of data are not treated more or less favorably by the companies that give customers access to them. For example, the service provider Verizon owns the search engine Yahoo, but is not allowed to slow down access to competing search engines like Google or Bing.
The continuing debate today is over a specific measure called the Open Internet Ordinance. This measure was enacted by the FCC in 2015 to reclassify the Internet as a utility under Title II, granting it the protections that come with the classification to ensure neutrality.
Why should I care?
In West Virginia, many residents already struggle with reliable Internet access. With only 75 percent broadband coverage, W.Va. is ranked 45th in the nation for broadband coverage. In fact, 28 percent of West Virginia residents have access to two or fewer Internet providers, and there are 430,000 residents in the state who only have access to one provider, leaving them with no alternative.
With so few choices, West Virginia citizens are extremely reliant on Internet service providers to bring them access to not only entertainment sites like Netflix, but also the vital communications needed for healthcare and business.
Why are we talking about this now? In 2015, under President Obama, the Internet was reclassified from Title I to Title II by the FCC under the Open Internet Ordinance, giving it the same protections as electric and telephone landlines. While many of the existing Title II regulations did not apply to the Internet, the FCC used a process called “forbearance” to apply only regulations which were applicable. These included consumer protections to prevent internet service providers from blocking or throttling certain data or offering paid prioritization to content providers.
This year, the FCC voted to reverse the Title II classification, which in effect will overturn the regulations that keep the Internet neutral.
The Internet was fine before 2015, right? Well, not exactly. From 2007 to 2009, AT&T forced Apple to block VOIP communications through Skype and other apps to prevent users from making calls outside of their own networks and eliminate competition.
In 2011, MetroPCS attempted to block all streaming services except for YouTube (and sued the FCC when the practice was brought into question). From 2011 to 2013, AT&T, Sprint, and Verizon were blocking access to Google Wallet because it competed with a similar service, Isis, which they all had a stake in.
In 2012, AT&T tried to block access to FaceTime unless users paid an additional fee. In 2014, both ComCast and Verizon slowed Netflix traffic in an attempt to force Netflix to pay ISPs a premium for an Internet “fast-lane.” It was arguably this case that caught full attention of the public and spur the movement for the Open Internet Ordinance the following year.
So what now? The short answer is nobody knows. ISPs are now free to go back to the blocking and throttling behaviors they engaged in before 2015. Although companies like ComCast and Verizon have publicly stated they would not intentionally slow traffic or restrict access to sites, there are no longer regulations in place to hold them to their word. Looking abroad, one can’t help but take notice of Portugal, a country that is without net neutrality.
In Portugal, internet service provider MEO has split Internet access into packages, each with its own fees. For example, access to YouTube and Netflix is restricted to customers who pay for the “video” package, while access to Google Mail, Google Drive and iCloud is only for customers who pay for the “email and cloud” package.
Without net neutrality, tiered systems like this are not a guarantee, but they are a possibility, and exist as a real-world example of what the future may hold without neutrality regulations in place to protect consumers.
Auston Weiford in the digital editor for The Register-Herald in Beckley.