Privacy SOS

Net Neutrality: What it is, why it matters, and how to save it.

You know how your electric bill works, right? Your power company supplies and delivers electricity to your home and you get charged for what you use, not how you use it. Your power company doesn’t care if you run three vacuums, cool your house with refrigerators, or leave high-powered lights on 24/7, so long as you pay your bill.

At its core, that is the argument behind net neutrality.

The Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) net neutrality rules require your Internet Service Provider (ISP) to treat all of your internet activity equally. Under the rules, your ISP cannot block you from visiting a particular website or using a particular internet-based service. The ISP sells you access to the internet, just as the power company sells you electricity. And just like the power company, the ISP is allowed to charge you more if you use more or if you would like a larger pipe (more bandwidth) to access the web. But under the current rules, your ISP can’t decide how you’re going to use the internet—for example whether or not you can stream video, play video games, or visit ACLU.org.

Like electricity, the internet is a utility, meaning we can’t function in 21st century society without it. Net neutrality rules apply fairness principles to ISPs that have long been applied to utilities like phone and power companies.

That fairness doctrine was initially established in Title II of the Communications Act of 1934, a law enacted by Franklin D. Roosevelt to ensure that telephone and radio services would be treated equally when delivering services to consumers across the U.S.. President Obama’s FCC chair recognized that the internet is a utility just like phone systems, and changed the formal classification of the internet from Title I, which covers “information services,” to Title II. This change allowed the FCC to regulate the internet as a “telecommunications service,” like phone systems, with all the fairness and privacy regulations that accompany the designation.

Reclassifying the internet under Title II meant that the FCC could implement regulations to prevent ISPs from blocking or throttling any data, as well as prevent them from enacting any sort of “paid prioritization.” Paid prioritization is when a company pays for premium delivery of their service or content. Take news for example. Under a system allowing for paid prioritization, Fox News may pay Comcast a certain amount of money each year to speed up delivery of its online video content. Fox News video viewers would benefit from fast video speeds. But if a smaller news organization like DemocracyNow! couldn’t pay for paid prioritization, viewers of that site’s online video may be faced with the endless buffer symbol. That’s precisely the scenario net neutrality rules are meant to foreclose.

On November 22nd the Chairman of the FCC, Ajit Pai, published a draft order outlining his vision to dismantle net neutrality.

Over the past decade, ISPs have lobbied hard to kill any regulations that protect an open, privacy-protective internet framework. With ISP-friendly control of the FCC, they finally have their moment in the sun, but it’s not too late to stop them.

The stakes couldn’t be higher.

Internet Service Providers have the power, incentive and soon may have unfettered ability to interfere with the internet. And they’ve already demonstrated they cannot be trusted.

We don’t have to speculate or come up with hypotheticals about how the gutting of net neutrality rules might impact us. Before the Obama administration classified the internet as a utility under Title II, ISPs abused their power in the following ways:

  • In August 2007, the rock group Pearl Jam was performing at the music festival Lollapalooza in Chicago when AT&T, responsible for streaming the show online, censored part of the show as lead singer Eddie Vedder sang, “George Bush, leave this world alone” and “George Bush, find yourself another home.”
  • In late 2007, Verizon Wireless cut off access to a service provided by the pro-abortion-rights group NARAL which allowed the group to send text messages to their supporters and activists.
  • In 2007, Comcast, the largest TV provider and second largest ISP in the United States, throttled and blocked an entire class of internet communication called “peer-to-peer” networking. P2P networking is when two or more computers are directly connected and share resources without going through a central server. It is used for legitimate as well as illegitimate purposes on the internet, and Comcast sought to block the entire protocol while at the same time trying to sell its own online video service. The FCC took action again Comcast, which in turn stopped its infringement. However, Comcast challenged the order in court and won, leading to the FCC developing the 2015 Open Internet Order to further protect the rights of consumers.
  • Streaming video service Netflix has had issues with Internet Service Providers in the past when ISPs like Verizon and Comcast were caught deliberately limiting bandwidth between Netflix and consumers.

And those are just the examples we know about.

In smaller countries all around the world, internet services are state owned and provided to the public. In more autocratic governments, state ownership means the government has the ability to limit or direct access to specific services in place of others. That hasn’t worked well for internet users worldwide, in places that lack net neutrality type laws.

  • Etisalat, the 14th largest mobile network in the world, operates in the United Arab Emirates and 16 other countries across Asia, the Middle East and Africa. It is 60% owned by the UAE Government. Etisalat blocks access to all VOIP services so that people only use their mobile network to call overseas, making it impossible for people to use services like Viber, Skype and others.
  • In India, Facebook tried to launch a “Free Basics” program where internet access was provided to people who could not afford a broadband connection or mobile data plan. It provided a “limited internet” where only a few websites and services were offered. This violated the principle of net neutrality that all content and users should be treated equally.
  • In South America, internet service provider Claro uses zero rating in plans provided to consumers where social media usage does not count towards a monthly data cap. Claro operates in Chile, Brazil, Columbia and other Latin American nations. This violates net neutrality, as only an established social media company’s data won’t count towards a consumer’s monthly data usage, making it harder for smaller companies and startups to incentivize users to adopt their products.

It’s not too late to stop this assault on the internet. Act Now!

On December 14th the FCC will vote on Chairman Ajit Pai’s proposal to gut net neutrality. The two Democratic commissioners, Jessica Rosenworcel and Mignon Clyburn will vote no. It is highly unlikely that Brendan Carr or Mike O’Rielly, the two Republican commissioners, will flip their votes — even with sustained pressure at the FCC.

Chairman Ajit Pai argues that the free market will take care of internet freedom. If one ISP blocks or throttles content, consumers can just choose another ISP that doesn’t, the argument goes. But this argument ignores the simple fact that 67% of consumers have two or fewer options for an Internet Service Provider. For many Americans, if their ISP slows down their service or otherwise interferes with their access, they are stuck.

We can’t let that happen. Here are five things you can do right now to save net neutrality:

  1. While the FCC commissioners may be immovable on this issue, Congress is not—and Congress has the power to save net neutrality. Call your members of Congress and tell them to save net neutrality. Then tell five friends and family members to call.
  2. On December 7th, join the nationwide protest outside Verizon stores across the country. Find a protest near you. Ajit Pai, the current Chairman of the FCC, is a former Verizon lobbyist. (In Boston, you can join the ACLU of Massachusetts and our allies on Thursday December 7th at 5pm outside the Verizon store at 745 Boylston St, Boston, MA 02116.)
  3. Share this post and the video at the top with your friends and family. Tell them why net neutrality is important.
  4. Visit Battle for the Net and write a letter to Congress to put a stop to all of this.
  5. Call the FCC at 888-225-5322 and file a complaint (prompts 1, 4, 2, 0)

When we fight, we win!

This blog post was written by Nasser Eledroos, Ford Mozilla Technology Fellow at the ACLU of Massachusetts

© 2017 ACLU of Massachusetts.