Random Digital Madness: Net Neutrality (revisited)

By Bill Harp
Reader Columnist

Editor’s note: Several months ago, intermittent Reader columnist Bill Harp submitted an informative look at net neutrality. This week’s column revisits the issue that affects everyone who uses the internet.

What is net neutrality?

The FCC’s recent retraction of the Obama-era net neutrality requirements for internet service providers (ISPs) will have a dramatic effect on the evolution of the internet as we know it.  To recap: For years the ISPs delivered internet traffic without preferences to originator — Facebook, Netflix, Google — and all the small websites had equal footing for communicating with you on the internet.  This concept is the cornerstone of net neutrality.

What does it mean?

This makes net neutrality a key component of the open and transparent internet services we currently enjoy. The Obama administration recognized how important this open strategy was to the nation’s economic development and codified the practice into net neutrality policy.

What would happen if powerful companies could subvert the open internet?  The Dec. 14, 2017, recension of net neutrality regulations by the FCC means that ISPs can now choose to provide priority network paths to companies or users that pay more.  For example, Netflix could pay an ISP to provide better bandwidth for their services than their competitors. Their media streaming service would come in lightning fast and their competitor’s would arrive slow-as-molasses, if at all.  It also means the ISP could charge YOU more for access to your favored content or even block sites that they decide do not merit your attention.

Does it affect me?

Already in Bonner County, we have internet inequality based on our location: Some have access to fairly-priced, high-quality bandwidth and others have something less than that. If you can’t stream internet video services without interruption, you are definitely in the latter category. Now, without net neutrality requirements, an ISP could potentially hold your internet service access hostage and create a new digital divide based on your ISP’s economic, political or ideological alliances.

How did this happen?

There are five commissioners at the FCC. Three voted for, and two against, rescinding the net neutrality regulations.  One of the current FCC Commissioners, Jessica Rosenworcel, who voted against rescinding net neutrality regulations, stated in an interview with Recode, a technology news web site …

“But if you take away those policies that preserve openness — and that’s what net neutrality is all about — what you get is broadband providers with the power to block websites, throttle services, and censor and restrict your access to online content.”  https://tinyurl.com/yclqodhm

The internet has powered unprecedented economic development and opportunity in modern society.  It is now hard to imagine life without it.  It is impossible to detail how many industries depend on the internet as core to their business model.  The web is truly egalitarian; anyone can post a web site.  Any changes to the successful model of the open internet that we currently enjoy could have adverse economic consequences.

What might happen now?

Now, as streaming media services become extremely competitive and television morphs into internet services, companies fiercely compete for your eyeballs. As a result, companies that provide the actual physical internet connection to your business or residence may control internet access without the protections previously afforded by net neutrality. They also want to cash in on the fact that they might own the only internet access available in your area. Without net neutrality, just imagine all the creative ways an ISP might invent to wring money out of you and your favorite content providers.

Battle of the Titans

This war for internet control pits the huge ISPs — Comcast, Verizon, and AT&T — against internet content provider monsters — Amazon, Facebook, Twitter, Google, Microsoft, and Netflix.  Wow, this is actually Goliath against Goliath. But the biggest loser, caught in the middle of this war of the Titans, could be you. Without net neutrality, the internet of ideas and openness, with its requirement for an open playing field for all content providers, could be irrevocably corrupted into a pay-to-play scenario for content providers and content consumers.

Local ISPs, too, have a chance to stand up, especially those smaller regional companies dedicated to their communities and clients. They can join the fight for net neutrality and continue to offer open services and resist the temptation to implement pay-to-play access.

Is there any hope?

Hopefully, Congress will come to its senses on this critical bipartisan business issue, overrule the FCC’s shortsightedness, and return to a policy of global net neutrality. However, most members of Congress aren’t willing to tie their own shoes without permission from their corporate minders, much less pass important legislation. Stay tuned to this channel, so to speak.

Bill Harp is a technologist, geospatial analyst and cultural anthropologist.  He was Director of Technology (emeritus) of Bonner County and has a long career in defense and intelligence.

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