10 Things You Need to Know about the Net Neutrality Debate

The debate about net neutrality has been heating up since the FCC chairman revealed his plan to remove rules that protect it. The rules ensure traffic on the Internet is treated equally by preventing Internet service providers (ISPs) from blocking, throttling, and offering paid prioritization. The FCC will vote on the proposal on Dec. 14 and is expected to approve it.

Since the plan to repeal the rules has been in the spotlight, there’s been a lot of misinformation out there about net neutrality and what the future of the Internet could be. So here’s a list of 10 things you need to know about the net neutrality debate.

1. ISPs claim net neutrality rules must be scrapped to encourage investment in improving their networks. But the data shows that isn’t true. Investments have actually increased since stricter rules were enacted in 2015.

Burying cable and internet map
Image source: 1,2

ISPs argue that regulations against charging extra for an Internet “fast lane” stop them from investing in their networks. For instance, the senior vice president of Verizon said the company has no incentive to develop advanced fiber-optic networks if they can’t charge higher fees to customers willing to pay for higher speeds.

But when speaking to the company’s investors, Verizon’s executive VP and CFO said the rules do not affect its investment in its networks. “This does not influence the way we invest. I mean, we’re going to continue to invest in our networks and our platforms.”

A report from Free Press showed ISPs’ investments actually increased in the two years after the Obama administration put stricter net neutrality rules in place in 2015. Also during that time, not a single publicly traded ISP told their investors that net neutrality rules impacted their investments.(1,2,3,4)

2. Some ISPs such as Comcast and AT&T have promised that they won’t engage in throttling or blocking even if there are no rules prohibiting it. But there are several cases of them doing it in the past.

Comcast and AT&T logos and throttle
Image source: 1,2,3

Here are just a few examples. In 2007, Comcast was taken to court for throttling peer-to-peer traffic on its networks. At first, the company denied the allegations but later admitted to it. In 2009, it was revealed that Apple and AT&T had a secret agreement that they would ban apps that allow iPhone users to make phone calls using their wireless data connection. In addition, in 2011, Verizon blocked customers from installing the Google Wallet application which was a direct competitor of Verizon’s own mobile payment app. These cases show that some ISPs are absolutely willing to use throttling and blocking to keep consumers from using competitors’ services.(1,2,3,4,5,6)

3. Net neutrality opponents argue that allowing paid prioritization of Internet traffic could ensure critical information such as “health care vital signs” is transferred reliably. But that argument leaves out the fact that net neutrality rules already make an exception for those cases.

Doctor performing remote diagnosis
Image source: commons.wikimedia.org

This argument comes up regularly. One example is when a Republican senator brought it up last year in an FCC oversight hearing. He said ISPs should be able to sell a prioritized lane for cases such as “doctors who want to prioritize distant diagnostics.” He said that with the current rules, that type of telemedicine data is treated no more importance than “illegal content or pornography.”

But the senator’s argument has two major flaws. Firstly, net neutrality rules only apply to legal content. Secondly, the current rules make an exception for critical data such as heart monitors, so remote medical diagnosis can already be prioritized using isolated network capacity.(1,2)

4. Net neutrality opponents say if ISPs can charge large content providers for prioritization, they’ll be able to charge consumers less for Internet access and may even offer it for free. But experts say that won’t happen.

Ethernet cable and free sign
Image source: 1,2

This argument claims that if ISPs can charge large companies for faster service, they won’t need to charge consumers as much. The anti-net neutrality group “Hands Off The Internet” that was sponsored mainly by AT&T once put out a print ad  that said: “net neutrality means consumers will be stuck paying more for their Internet access to cover the big online companies’ share.”

Jonathan Zittrain, a professor of law and computer science, said if ISPs were allowed to charge more for prioritization, they would probably just pocket the money. “It would not result in free Internet for consumers, but in added revenue for the company that simply goes back to the shareholders. ” Zittrain said the reason is that there’s a lack of competition between ISPs so they would have no incentive to lower the cost of Internet for consumers.(1,2)

5. Net neutrality supporters say that without rules in place, ISPs might only offer access to “bundles” of specific websites and block access to others such as competitor’s services. But some experts say rather than actually blocking access, ISPs will use other means to discourage users from visiting those websites. For instance, they may charge more for data usage on those websites or relegate them to the “slow lane.”

Bundled internet
Image source: knowyourmeme.com

Some experts say ISPs will avoid blocking access to websites because it antagonizes customers too much.  It’s more likely that ISPs will give preferential treatment to the content providers they favor. One way ISPs could do this is through “zero rating” which means they sell plans with data usage caps and then make their favored content providers exempt. That would mean consumers would have to choose between using up their data by visiting the websites they want or using the ISP’s preferred websites for free.

Another way ISPs could control what websites people visit is to put them in the “slow lane.” While that means users will still have access any website, the slower loading times would make it difficult for those websites to stay competitive. A study found that even a one-second delay can lead to 11%t fewer page views, and a 16% decrease in customer satisfaction.(1,2,3)

6. If ISPs start restricting Internet traffic, experts say consumers will find software workarounds, similar to people who currently get around the Internet restrictions of authoritarian governments.

Software workarounds for internet restrictions
Image source: 1,2,3,4

In the book The Future of the Internet—And How to Stop It, Jonathan Zittrain suggests consumers would be able to get around restrictions imposed by ISPs. He wrote: “If network providers try to be more constraining about what traffic they allow on their networks, software can and will be written to evade such restrictions.” He gave the example of people in China and Saudi Arabia who use software to get around their governments’ Internet filtering.

People use a variety of methods to get around government internet restrictions such as open proxies and virtual private networks(VPNs). That’s why the Chinese government has been cracking down on VPNs recently. But whenever one of these workarounds gets blocked, they typically adapt or get replaced by new solutions.(1,2)

7. This year, the FCC chairman said that his plan is to return to the rules that were in place before the Obama administration. But some of the rules to be eliminated, such as the ban on blocking applications, have been enforced since 2005.

FCC chairman Pai and Obama
Image source: 1,2

The origin of some current net neutrality rules dates back to 2004. That’s when FCC chairman Michael Powell encouraged ISPs to give consumers four freedoms, including the freedom to access content, and the freedom to run applications. The first time the FCC enforced these principles came in 2005 when a small phone company blocked its customers from using the Vonage app. The app allowed users to make voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) calls. In that case, the FCC negotiated an agreement with the phone company that it would no longer block VoIP calls.

But the FCC’s current plan includes eliminating even basic protections, such as the ban on blocking, and instead only requires“transparency” of ISPs. According to law professor Tim Wu, that means phone companies “will soon be able to block Internet calls so long as they disclose the blocking (presumably in fine print).”(1,2,3,4)

8. After the FCC announced its plans to repeal the net neutrality rules this year, the proposal was up for public comment for four months. In that time, the FCC received nearly 22 million comments, setting a new record. But many of them turned out to be fraudulent. Since then, the FCC explained that the public’s comments don’t carry much weight anyway.

FCC building and website and protesters
Image source: 1,2,3

The 22 million comments the FCC received set a new record. But multiple researchers have said at least one million of the comments submitted to the FCC were likely fraudulent. Those comments were discovered to be automatically generated because they used the same words and phrases, just slightly rearranged so each comment appeared to be unique. According to the Pew Research Center, on nine occasions more than 75,000 comments were submitted at the same second, which strongly suggests they were sent using bots.

Besides fraudulent comments sent by bots, many more were sent using form letters.  A report from data scientist Jeff Kao said only about 800,000 of the comments were unique, and 99 percent of those were in support of net neutrality.

Under the Administrative Procedure Act, government agencies are required to accept public comments. But an FCC official said they don’t put much importance on these comments unless they introduce new facts or make serious legal arguments.(1,2,3,4,5,6)

9. Some of the largest content providers such as Google and Netflix have already been forced to make special deals to stay in the Internet fast lane.

Google and Netflix logos and fast lane
Image source: 1,2,3

In the early 2000’s, Internet traffic was distributed across thousands of companies. But today, half the traffic on the Internet comes from just 30 companies including Google and Netflix. To handle its massive amounts of traffic, Google had to make deals to set up routers in data centers used by ISPs, bypassing the “Internet backbone.” This type of direct connection is called “peering,” and it minimizes the delay of communications.

Similarly, Netflix revealed in 2014 that it had to make a deal with Comcast to avoid slow service. In that case, Comcast had allowed Netflix’s traffic to bottleneck when the common practice was to open up new ports to maintain data flow. Writing about the deal, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings argued, “Some big ISPs are extracting a toll because they can — they effectively control access to millions of consumers and are willing to sacrifice the interests of their own customers to press Netflix and others to pay.”(1,2)

10. According to Tim Wu, the law professor who coined the term “network neutrality,” the FCC’s proposed rule changes will probably be struck down in court.

Tim Wu and gavel
Image source: 1,2

In a recent opinion article for The New York Times, Wu wrote that the FCC will have to justify in court why they are scrapping net neutrality rules. “Government agencies are not free to abruptly reverse longstanding rules on which many have relied without a good reason.” The Supreme Court has said government agencies have to provide a “satisfactory explanation” for making such changes. In addition, Wu argues that because public opinion is so against the FCC’s plan, the courts may be emboldened to oppose it.(1,2,3)

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