Business / Tech

Net Neutrality: When Data is Used Against You

Photo taken of pai from net neutrality

The internet is such a ubiquitous part of life for average Americans that most of us take it for granted. But what you may not realize is that the internet isn’t as free as it seems.

In fact, it’s been the site of an ongoing battle between consumer advocates, telecom companies, and government regulators over how free the internet should truly be.

We’re talking about net neutrality, and if you’re wondering, “What is net neutrality?” the short answer is that it’s the defining factor in whether or not telecom companies have the right to monitor, manipulate, and restrict your internet access.

Before, we wrote about Big Brother tracking your activities with invasive technology, but it’s not just the government that wants to control you. The telecom industry enables how we use the internet, from different bundles to higher speeds. And right now, these telecom corporations are celebrating the end of net neutrality.

What is Net Neutrality?

word cloud example about net neutrality
Net Neutrality Word Cloud

To the uninitiated, net neutrality sounds like common sense. It’s the idea that service providers like Comcast and Verizon should treat all content flowing through their cables and cell towers equally. The content, user, application, device, or platform should have no bearing on the results.

Everything gets the same speed, the same quality, the same conditions.

In other words, Internet Service Providers (ISPs) should not have the ability to discriminate between any apps or content flowing over their networks. They cannot block or slow down certain content at their own discretion.

It’s a way of protecting free speech and free communication on the internet. Net neutrality means all data is equal in the eyes of internet providers, meaning providers must provide equal speeds and access to users, preventing manipulation tactics. During Obama’s presidency, net neutrality was ruled and companies were prohibited from discriminating against customers, intentionally slowing down service or enabling faster speeds for higher prices. Companies had been long controlling customers, blocking access to certain sites and apps or heavily censoring content and net neutrality was meant to change that. Until this year, when President Trump repealed net neutrality and it’s something we should all be worried about. When telecom companies have total control over service access, they control the market and pricing. It’s ridiculous to think corporations have to turn to complete dictatorship to make some money, especially in an industry where the top provider made more than $160 billion in 2017. Which drives the question, why does net neutrality need to repealed?

A Quick History of Net Neutrality

The term “net neutrality” was coined back in 2003 by a Columbia University law professor named Tim Wu. In a paper titled “Network Neutrality, Broadband Discrimination“, Wu argued that restriction of new technologies by broadband providers would ultimately harm innovation.

At that time, some broadband providers (including Comcast) banned home users from accessing virtual private networks (VPNs), while others banned users from using Wi-Fi routers.

The Bush-era Federal Communications Commission (FCC) took the first stab at net neutrality in 2005 with a policy statement. It prohibited ISPs from blocking legal content or preventing users from connecting internet access devices of their own choosing.

However, the policy didn’t hold, as Comcast sued the FCC for overstepping its bounds and a federal court ruled that the FCC failed to make a legal case that it had the authority to enforce its policy statement.

In 2010, the Obama-era FCC tried again to pass net neutrality and was again sued. This time, it was by Verizon, and the same court ruled in 2014 that the FCC did not have the authority to impose net neutrality on service providers who were not considered common carriers under Title II of the Communications Act.

The FCC eventually changed tactics to reclassify broadband providers as Title II carriers with fewer obligations than telephone operators. The agency was sued again, but this time, the ruling came out in its favor and the policy was upheld…at least until December 2017.

Why Does Net Neutrality Matter?

All this begs the question: why are the FCC and ISPs going back and forth over net neutrality? If it’s common sense that benefits everyone, what is there to fight about?

Well, it’s not quite that simple. ISPs have a good reason to oppose net neutrality and consumers have plenty of good reasons to fight for it.

What’s the Problem Here?

To understand why, you have to understand what’s at issue here.

Most people get their internet access from one of a few major internet giants–Comcast, Verizon, AT&T, Cox, CenturyLink, and Charter. In fact, 55% of the United States only uses one major internet provider, and the other 45% mainly relies on two.

When we send or receive data on the internet, we expect our carrier to transfer data from one end of the network to the desired endpoint. No ifs, ands, or buts, and certainly no data analysis or manipulation en route.

However, if the sole provider decides to be a “bad actor”, the average consumer doesn’t have free-market recourse. They can’t take their business elsewhere because there isn’t anywhere else to go. Which means that curbs on provider behavior must necessarily come from government regulation.

Wait, What Do You Mean They Can Manipulate Our Data?

Let’s rewind for a second: can companies manipulate your data?

They can and they have, which is why the net neutrality debate is raging on.

Once upon a time, the idea of a company being able to go through every piece of data you send online was the stuff of sci-fi nightmares and spy movies. Now, though, companies have Big Data analytics on their side, which means they have the tools to scrutinize every piece of information we send and receive online.

Yes, every piece of data–emails, videos, websites, social networks, data generated from games. It’s all there for the taking.

Worse, they can program routers to interfere with data flow by slowing or outright blocking traffic they don’t like. Or, conversely, they can speed up traffic they do like (or traffic that pays them extra for that privilege).

Imagine if the phone company could disrupt your calls (i.e. bad connections, dropped calls, etc.) every time you tried to order from Pizza Hut because Dominoes is paying them. Internet providers can do that with websites and online data.

Why Would They Want to Do That?

There are plenty of reasons why a telecom company might want to disrupt or manipulate data. Maybe they have a partner and they want to earn greater profits by ensuring that their partner gets more business than their competitors.

Maybe they want to interfere with communication that represents them in a bad light.

Maybe they want to block applications that compete with their own.

Maybe they want to block or restrict access to a union site during a labor conflict, forcing negotiators to come to the table on their terms.

Maybe they don’t agree with your political viewpoints.

Variable Pricing and Net Neutrality

Most of the time, the debate over net neutrality is framed as ideological–the debate between those who want the internet to be free and those who don’t want an unfettered internet. But in reality, it’s mostly a dispute over money.

On one end of the debate are internet providers, from telecommunications giants (AT&T, Verizon) to cable operators (Comcast, Time Warner Cable). We’ll call them Pipes.

On the other side of the equation are companies that benefit from surging traffic on the internet, such as Apple, Google, Cisco, and Microsoft, whose businesses rely on expanding bandwidth to sustain growth. We’ll call them Swipes.

The economics of the situation is heavily skewed. The internet seems invisible, but the reality is that it relies on an extensive network of underground fiberoptic cables. These cables have a fixed capacity, but they still cost billions to install and millions to upgrade.

Pipes bear the brunt of infrastructure costs–an infrastructure which Swipes depend on to prosper. The four big Pipes named here have a net combined debt of $143 billion. The four leading Swipes, on the other hand, have a net cash pile of $140 billion.

The transition to mobile devices aggravates the divide further. The only way for Pipes to make up some of the gap is through variable pricing–charging customers by the data they consume. That means already-unpopular Pipes are saddling customers with ever-larger bills while Swipes take most of the profits.

This is where net neutrality (or lack thereof) comes into the picture.

Pipes (i.e. telecom providers, those who sued the FCC three times over net neutrality regulations) have a high incentive to look for ways to compensate for their financial losses. If, for example, they were to partner with certain Swipes, they could take some of the Swipes profits by manipulating data.

Is That Legal? What About the Competition?

This brings us back to net neutrality.

The phone company isn’t allowed to do something like this because it falls under the category of “common carrier”, which means it has the responsibility to treat all traffic neutrally. You’ll recall that the FCC tried to reclassify ISPs as common carriers but the policy was overturned in court.

So, technically, it is perfectly legal for companies to do this. It was illegal for a period until the policy was overturned by the Trump-era FCC in December 2017.

As for competition, remember that half of all Americans use the same internet provider and 45% rely primarily on two. The competition won’t remove the incentive to do this because there is no competition.

There isn’t likely to be competition in the near future, either. Remember, internet providers have huge infrastructure costs, which means the barriers to entry in the industry are so high as to be almost insurmountable for newcomers.

Have There Been Actual Instances of This?

In short, telecom providers have the ability and the incentive to interfere with internet access. Providers have tried to argue that this is theoretical, but that simply isn’t the case.

Take Comcast, for example.

In 2007, Comcast used deep packet inspection to block file transfers from customers on peer-to-peer networks like BitTorrent, eDonkey, and Gnutella. The company tried to argue that it was delaying, not blocking, BitTorrent traffic in times of high traffic to preserve performance speeds for other customers.

Independent nationwide tests confirmed that the blocking had nothing to do with traffic congestion since the blocking took place even at times when traffic was low.

Oh, and there’s the pesky fact that Comcast hoped to sell online video itself.

Net Neutrality Now in 2019

This brings us to the present moment, when net neutrality is again the subject of a legal tug-of-war between telecom companies and regulators, with consumers stuck in between them.

Do we still have Net Neutrality?

We had net neutrality for a few years, but it’s gone now and the government is fighting to keep the repeal intact. Trump-appointed Ajit Pai (a former Verizon lawyer) as head of the FCC and upholding the repeal, even though most Americans disagree with Pai.

Service plans haven’t completely changed yet, but telecom companies have a bad history of messing with customers and it’s about to get worse. The Santa Clara County Fire Department is suing Verizon. But why? California has been battling the Mendocino Complex Fire (a fire complex made up of 2 wildfires) since July and firefighters are putting their lives on the line to prevent further damage and death.

While trying to map their location on the job, firefighters noticed their internet access had slowed down to 1/200 of the original speed they had. Instead of helping the firefighters in a critical crisis, Verizon instead suggested they upgrade to a more expensive plan for higher speeds. Verizon purposely slowed down the service to force an upgrade, even after being alerted to the situation.

Now the fire department and local governments are fighting back, arguing the repeal of net neutrality is endangering lives. Before anyone could reach out about these issues, but now people don’t have a way to contact the FCC, they’re redirected to the FTC.

If you’re not worried about losing net neutrality, you’re thinking too literally. It’s not just about the internet, it’s about our rights.

The Net Neutrality Repeal

In April 2017, FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai announced plans to reverse the 2015 net neutrality order. A December 2017 vote cemented those plans, functionally serving to throw out the 2015 rules in their entirety.

With those rules gone, broadband providers are no longer classified as common carriers, which means they’re no longer subject to the neutrality rules applied to common carriers. Previous restrictions on blocking and throttling content were also removed.

Instead, ISPs only need to disclose information about their network management practices.

The view by the FCC and the administration backing it was that unregulated business will eventually yield greater innovation and boost the American economy. Net neutrality advocates argued that lack of regulation would raise barriers to entry for startups and competitors to those with friends in high places.

In October of this year, a federal appeals court upheld the FCC’s decision but added caveats. It said that the FCC overstepped its bounds by broadly stopping state and local governments from writing their own net neutrality rules.

That’s good news for state and local governments who are against the FCC repeal. California, for example, approved a law in 2018 that effectively restored Obama-era net neutrality at the state level, though it was immediately challenged by the Justice Department.

The court’s ruling clears a major roadblock for the California laws and those like it, though they are still likely to face legal challenges. For now, at least, California has grounds to continue enforcing its law and pursuing net neutrality.

What would happen without Net Neutrality?

Giving network provider companies the reins means they have complete control of content and access. A plan will dictate the cap of your data usage, at which point your provider forcibly slow down the internet speed. If you want more, you have to pay more.

You’ll have to pay to use certain apps and sites. And it’s not just users that get hit with the limits. What about online retailers? Online banking? How will other industries react when their customer base is slowed down or cut off by these limiting plans? How will the consequences ripple out? What industry won’t suffer?

Countries that do not have net neutrality pay very high prices for data. And in many instances, that also raises the cost of owning and using a cellphone. We already have $1000 phones, how much more do they want us to pay? Sure, that giant brick from the ’80s was way more expensive, but they didn’t have smartphones and apps.

Telecom has the advantage of knowing that so many people and corporations rely on the internet for pretty much everything. Entertainment, contact, business, health, finances, and everything else that’s online.

Portugal is often used as an example of life without net neutrality. Do you like watching Netflix, texting, looking through Instagram, playing a game, and checking your email in a day? Too bad, you need to pay for 6 different plans that grant you access to certain apps and sites (not including the usage cap).

This is what unregulated telecom looks like. Your service quality and capabilities will depend on which tier you pay for. If you can’t pay for the best, most expensive plan, you’ll service gets capped.

Once you reach the cap, either stop using the internet or shell out more cash. It’s a mammoth step backward from net neutrality and it’s paving the way of losing certain freedoms.

What now?

What is net neutrality?

The short answer: it’s complicated.

The long answer: we’re still figuring it out.

California is fighting to keep net neutrality, and it could indicate the future for the entire country. Other states and local legislations are also gearing up to fight against the FCC

Like other industries, there are a handful of cable and phone companies that are completely monopolizing net broadband while steadily increasing prices. But who is this truly good for? Let’s be real, there are more cons than pros with repealed net neutrality.

But regardless of where net neutrality stands, your data has power. It has implications on your privacy, what companies do and don’t know about you, and what they can do with that information.

Want to read more of the biggest news and insights in the tech industry? Make sure to check out our blog for more great posts, like this one on how dangerous biased data can be.

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