Net Neutrality: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.

Net Neutrality was a major debate in the US a few years ago.

Simply put, it is the principle that internet service providers should enable access to all content and applications regardless of the source, and without favouring or blocking particular products or websites.

Makes sense doesn’t it? One wonder why it took so long for The Land of the Free to put their foot down and stick it to the corporate bigshots.

What has transpired in the US since Net Neutrality has been enforced?

Legally speaking.

It’s been a year since net neutrality was repealed. I recently read an article on where  Gigi Sohn, a distinguished fellow at Georgetown Law’s Institute for Technology Law and Policy, chats with Verge editor-in-chief Nilay Patel about what’s happened since by explaining the ripple effect of harmful policy decisions and more. Below is the exact replica of a sample of their interview.

Nilay Patel (NP): It’s been a year since net neutrality was repealed and I‘ve seen a rash of headlines about it. The National Review says the internet apocalypse didn’t happen, which is true. It was not an apocalypse. But I want to talk about what has happened with internet service in America over the past year since net neutrality was repealed. In some ways it’s been a death by a thousand cuts. There’s a lot of little things that did happen that aren’t great.
Gigi Sohn (GS): I disagree with you to the extent that I don’t think these are little things. I actually think they’re very big things and I think they’re just at the very beginning of worse things to come. So, yes it’s death by a thousand cuts but the cuts are deeper than people think.

NP: What immediately comes to mind? Data caps are back in vogue, there’s this router fee that Frontier is charging people for even if they have one of those routers, there’s the entire FCC. The FCC just doesn’t enforce anything anymore. It gave away its power and now there’s nowhere to go.
GS: When the Trump FCC repealed the 2015 Open Internet Order it didn’t just eliminate the prohibitions against blocking and throttling and pay prioritization. So in other words, these were things that Comcast, AT&T, Verizon and Charter were not allowed to do. They were not allowed to control your internet experience, but it also gave away oversight over the broadband industry. The FCC abdicated its responsibility to protect consumers and competition in the broadband market. That is the most important thing that happened on December 14th, 2017 when the FCC repealed the Open Internet Order.

But let me explain three things that have happened in the last year and a couple of months that clearly demonstrate that what the FCC did is really terrible for consumers terrible for competition and frankly terrible for public safety. I mean it really goes beyond pure consumer issues.

The first thing that happened, and this is not insignificant, is about a year ago during the worst fire in California history, Verizon was throttling the Santa Clara County Fire Department’s broadband. And Verizon and the fire department engaged in a seven month discussion over whether Verizon ought to be throttling the fire department’s broadband in the middle of huge forest fires and eventually what Verizon said was they would stop throttling the broadband if the fire department paid more than double of what they were paying before for broadband and the fire department had no place to go. They can’t go to the FCC because the FCC abdicated their authority over broadband. They wouldn’t go to the FTC because they take forever to adjudicate complaints. So, if Verizon throttles your broadband, there’s nothing they can do about it.

NP: And that’s not a trade problem. If you sell the thing, you’re advertising there’s no trade problem.
GS: Exactly. The fire department had absolutely no recourse. And what I found really interesting about this was that while this was happening neither the FCC nor the FTC said anything about it. Neither of them said “oh if the fire department had only filed a complaint with us we would have done something about it.” And I found that very telling. But that was a matter of life and property here. Not just a matter of you paying ten dollars more for a router or whatever have you.

So, the second instance of where the absence of net neutrality really implicated public safety was when a number of mobile carriers, T-Mobile, Sprint and AT&T were found to have sold the precise geo location data of their customers. If they sell them to data brokers who then sold them to bounty hunters. People who try to find estranged girlfriends, kids and so on.

Again, it’s very important to know that the FCC had privacy rules that we adopted in 2016 that would have likely prevented this from happening because you would have had to opt in to the collection of this data. But once again consumers had nowhere to turn. And allegedly the FCC has been investigating this issue for a year and a half and has done nothing about it. So this is both a privacy issue, but also an oversight issue.

The third thing is what happened with Frontier Communications. They’re mostly in rural areas, but also in California. They’re not a beloved company. I’ll be very frank with you. What happened was, a customer bought his own router for two hundred dollars and Frontier kept charging him ten dollars a month to rent it. So this customer complained to the FCC and the FCC told Frontier they had to respond to this complaint and Frontier basically said “Too bad. This is a charge we make and you have to continue to pay it.” So basically, the FCC is delegating their oversight of the broadband industry to the broadband industry. They answered you so, goodbye, they have more important things to do.

When I say they’ve abdicated their responsibility and the repeal of the 2015 Open Internet order allowed them to do that, those are the deep cuts I’m talking about. And those are no joke.

Another school of thought.

There is another school of thought which proposes that killing Net Neutrality Rules did far more harm than you probably realize.

The article points out that the public has noted repeatedly that the repeal of net neutrality did far more than just kill popular net neutrality rules. It effectively neutered the FCC’s ability to do its job and oversee lumbering natural telecom monopolies.

And, contrary to the claims of the telecom lobby, it threw any remaining authority to an FTC that lacks the resources or authority to do the job either.

In short the repeal gave loathed telecom giants like Comcast and AT&T carte blanche to do pretty much anything they’d like to their captive customer bases, provided they’re marginally clever about it.

A case in point.

The article points to a case in point: the previous FCC had passed some fairly basic rules requiring that ISPs be transparent about the kind of connection you’re buying. As in, ISPs were required to not only inform you what kind of throttling or restrictions were on your line, but they were supposed to make it clear how many hidden fees you’d pay post sale. With those rules dead, the FCC’s process now basically involves you complaining to the Ajit Pai FCC, and the agency doing nothing about it.

Under Pai’s model, ISPs are allowed to mislead you all they’d like in terms of caps, throttling, and other limits, as long as their lies are hidden somewhere in their website. And even that’s not likely to be enforced:

The article adds that this is where it gets even worse: ISPs aren’t actually required to display this information on their own websites, even though doing so apparently offers the advantage of being able to obscure it under a mountain of Lorem Ipsum-esque self-laudatory text. Companies may also submit their “transparency disclosures” directly to the FCC.

But whereas the Open Internet Order—the now-repealed FCC rules that established net neutrality—required ISPs to offer consumers quick access to information in a format that’s easy to digest, the method devised by Chairman Pai all but ensures that some consumers will never find it.

Further examples.

Another case in point. Customers of Frontier Communications have been complaining that the company continues to charge them a $10 router rental fee every month, even when they own their own router. Customers who complain to the FCC are basically being told there’s nothing the FCC can do:

Son filed a complaint with the Federal Communications Commission; Frontier responded to the complaint but stuck to its position that he has to pay the fee. A voicemail that Frontier left with Son and his wife said the company informed the FCC that “the router monthly charge is an applicable fee, and it will continue to be billed.”

The article adds that the FCC complaints team told Son in an email, we reviewed the provider’s response and based on the information submitted, we believe your provider has responded to your concerns. With FCC Chairman Ajit Pai having deregulated the broadband industry, there’s little to no chance of the commission taking action to stop fees like the one charged by Frontier.

Take a moment to understand that. An ISP decided to charge a consumer a $10 per month router rental fee, despite the fact the customer paid $200 to own that router. When they complained to the FCC, the agency told the consumer it was no big deal and refused to help.

This is life now under Ajit Pai. And when lumbering apathetic ISPs have neither competition nor competent regulatory oversight to keep them in line, they simply double down on bad behavior, knowing there’s zero repercussion. Again, zero accountability was the entire point of the whole lobbying gambit.

Step in to protect consumers.

The article points out that this is where telecom lobbyists and Ajit Pai claimed the FTC would step in to protect consumers. But they always knew that was a longshot. The FTC’s regulatory enforcement behavior is very clearly limited only to acts that are clearly deceptive. When an ISP is looking you straight in the eye and telling you there is nothing you can do against their behaviour, there’s technically nothing deceptive going on.

Even in instances where the FTC technically could act, the telecom lobby knew they’d be so inundated with other obligations (everything from monitoring accuracy in bleach labeling to policing cramming fraud), they’d take years to tackle issues… if they acted at all. The telecom lobby, in effect, told the government to neuter oversight of one of the most problematic sectors in tech, kneecapping an agency (the FCC) built specifically to monitor the sector, and the government thought that was a wonderful idea. Unless you’re an inhalant addict you should probably be able to see why this could be problematic longer term.

The article adds that both examples above clearly showcase how repealing net neutrality rules will impact much more than net neutrality.

And anybody still arguing that killing net neutrality rules didn’t matter because the internet didn’t explode (still a common refrain in some quarters), is either arguing in bad faith, doesn’t understand the unique problems of the telecom sector, or simply has no idea what they’re talking about.

“At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what side of the debate you lean towards. Net Neutrality is a necessity because it prevents the creation of monopolies and promotes a free market system. However, ISPs should not hide their bad behaviour behind the fact that there are now rules that enforces and entrenches net neutrality. This is a short cut down a road that leads to China and North Korean style censorship where at the end of the day, the government will eventually tell you what you will watch, buy and consume,” said Bradley Geldenhuys, Co-Founder and CEO of GTconsult.