In its purest form, net neutrality is the principle that all data on the internet should be treated equally by Internet Service Providers (ISPs), government bodies regulating internet access, and all entities concerned with the movement and management of data over the internet, generally.
This idea considers internet access provision to be a public utility, much like water or electricity and therefore requires the agencies providing this utility not to discriminate or impose different pricing levels for different users, content, websites, applications, platforms, methods of communication, or types of devices connected to the network. Consumers can thus pay a single fee to access all the features that they want.
So the recent decision by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in the United States to overturn the net neutrality rules established there under President Barack Obama may be viewed initially as a windfall for ISPs, network carriers, and data handlers looking to cash in on what may now become a market free-for-all in terms of charging differential rates for internet access.
But beyond the financial aspect, there are deeper concerns over how these developments may affect individual rights to data and consumer privacy. And it’s with these issues that we’ll be concerning ourselves, in this article.
Why Was Net Neutrality Overturned?
Quite simply, the FCC has rejected the notion that internet access is analogous to a public utility. Rather than a medium for communications, they view the internet as a vehicle for trading in commerce and content – one which should be governed by market forces. This revised view effectively shifts the responsibility for policing the providers of internet services away from the FCC to its sister agency, the Federal Trade Commission or FTC.
The decision to rescind net neutrality wasn’t a unanimous one. In their vote on December 14th, 2017, the Republican-dominated FCC approved the proposal to repeal with a 3-2 vote along party lines, which nonetheless sets the machinery for dismantling the previous regime into motion.
Interestingly, this puts the United States into a community of nations without net neutrality regulations that also includes Argentina, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Chile, China, France, Israel, Italy, Japan, Netherlands, Portugal, Russia, South Korea, and Slovenia.
Net Neutrality – Privacy vs Pay Per Access
The removal of net neutrality rules gives ISPs the opportunity to parcel their services into discrete price levels and channels, much like those offered by cable service networks. In principle, higher subscription charges and better levels of service delivery may now be attached to streams requiring higher connection speeds, with the possibility that major players such as Netflix might be surcharged in exchange for preferential treatment.
As a logical consequence, end users could be charged premium rates for selected services and connection speed ranges. Moreover, ISPs would have the option to determine which types of media their subscribers are accessing, and maintaining logs of the kind of material being accessed, and how often it’s consumed.
Assuming that a scale of subscription charges is drawn up based on the kinds of content a provider defines (news, email, video, porn, etc.) consumers wishing to access these resources will be required to explicitly state this when buying access – effectively revealing their preferences and browsing habits which might otherwise remain private.
Resource and demand-based pricing structures for internet access in the absence of net neutrality will also make it worthwhile for service providers to keep a closer eye on their consumers, so as to establish their browsing patterns, bandwidth usage, and online behavior. This equates to tight monitoring or even surveillance.
A Lack of Transparency
From the consumer end of things, the fact that an ISP now has a comprehensive database of their online activities (ostensibly used as the basis for allocating bandwidth and setting prices) won’t necessarily translate into more transparent billing.
In fact, as the ruling stands, the ISPs are under no obligation to reveal to their customers how much and what kind of information they’re retaining on their subscribers – or how this data may be shared, or used for other purposes.
A Lack of Oversight
Though net neutrality’s repeal is assumed to pass responsibility for overseeing the activities of service providers to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), that body currently lacks the legal authority to monitor or rule on any unfair and deceptive ISP practices – including privacy violations. This is due to a section of the Federal Trade Commission Act known as the “common carrier exemption.”
Under this legal definition, a common carrier is a service which carries traffic “without discrimination or interference,” like a telephone service.
Whereas the net neutrality rules canceled by the FCC would have prohibited an ISP from selling, sharing or otherwise using your browsing history and applications usage unless you affirmatively gave them your permission for that use, the legal framework of the FTC doesn’t require consumers to affirmatively opt-in (explicitly state their consent) for browsing history and app usage.
Furthermore, with many ISPs also providing a common carrier service in the form of a landline or mobile phone provision, the FTC cannot currently enforce its laws against any of their services.
VPNs and the Need For Protection
The increased levels of surveillance anticipated under the new net neutrality-free ecosystem emphasize the need for a privacy protection that’s becoming essential to many consumers.
With their ability to tunnel internet connections via an encrypted link to remote servers, Virtual Private Networks or VPNs provide both security and anonymity to internet users – a factor which will be essential in limiting the capacity of ISPs to monitor the browsing activities and data usage of their subscribers.
What’s more, encrypted VPN connections play a major role in protecting personal privacy, and keeping personal consumer data beyond the reach of those who might seek to profit by its use.
Net Neutrality – Letting the Market Decide
Some advocates of net neutrality repeal argue that market forces will have a sobering and balancing effect on the behavior of the ISPs. Consumers will simply vote with their feet, leaving those providers which are excessively tampering with internet usage, or whose service levels deteriorate to unacceptable levels.
But in regions where internet access is restricted to a market of very few service providers, this option won’t be available to the consumer.
A Stalled Process
In response to the FCC’s net neutrality vote, bipartisan opposition has been recorded in the U.S. Congress. One representative (Rep. Mike Doyle, of the Democratic Party in Pennsylvania.) who sits on a sub-committee which oversees the FCC plans to introduce legislation after the vote that would block the repeal from going into effect. Several Republican Party representatives have called for a bipartisan legislative solution to the issue, rather than leaving the matter up to the FCC.
And a poll conducted by the University of Maryland revealed that 83% of Americans don’t approve of the FCC’s decision to repeal net neutrality.
Lawsuits and legal motions are expected to follow the ruling, effectively delaying its full implementation for months – or possibly years. The debate is far from over, and it’s not yet a completely done deal.
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