Friday, 28 April 2017 10:41

The Internet Is Under Attack By the US Government

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Net Neutrality is without question one of the most important principles in modern life. Whether you realize it or not, the idea that web services should be provided equally without preference to one type of traffic or another has been the cornerstone of the web as we know it. And the Trump administration is doing everything in its power to trample the principle.

In the latter Obama years, net neutrality came to be enshrined, at least in part, by the FCC. The Open Internet Order of 2015 reclassified internet service providers as “common carriers.” This came with stricter rules regarding how ISPs handled internet traffic. It protected user privacy and forbade companies from prioritizing traffic from specific sites or services.

The current chairman of the FCC and Trump appointee, Ajit Pai, announced his plan to upend the Open Internet Order. Pai will hold a meeting to look re-examine parts of the order. First, Pai will push for reclassification of ISPs, removing the common carrier requirements, then the FCC will take a look and at provisions that prohibit ISPs from throttling traffic to their competitors, for instance.

That last bit is particularly concerning because internet service providers, particularly in the United States, have built themselves into tremendous companies wielding broad and dangerous power. Comcast, for instance, is part of the same mega-corporation that controls NBC and Universal. Already you can see a problem — Comcast provides internet and cable services, and without strict rules governing how Comcast handles consumer internet traffic or cable accessibility, there’s little to stop them from making competitors’ movies and television shows harder or more expensive to access.

We’ve already seen this happen a few times. Netflix was notably throttled until it agreed to pay more to have its traffic given priority. This kind of practice is the same that created the type of mega-monopolies of the gilded age. Rail companies, having few regulations, would often charge farmers more to send their goods to market than they were worth. That led to insane concentrations of wealth and many of the worst social disasters in history — not to mention countless anti-trust laws. As a global society, we’ve already learned this lesson, or at least we should have.

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Now the internet faces its greatest existential threat. The US internet is already among the worst in the industrialized world, and it’s precisely because ISPs have had unchecked growth. As a result, there’s often only one high-speed company operating in any given city. Internet service providers have diced up the country to reduce consumer choice. No choice means no competition which leads to higher prices and lower quality for everyone. That’s one of the many reasons Comcast and pals’ customer service is so terrible — they know you don’t have a choice.

To be fair, ISPs are at least partially right. Having more than one major service company working in an area can cause a lot of redundancy regarding basic infrastructure. Typically services like this are what’s known as natural monopolies. Things like power companies or other utilities are common examples. And these are special cases where it doesn’t make sense to have lots of competition. Imagine having five different power lines running to your house so you could switch providers whenever you wanted — the costs would be higher because that system has lots of excess.

That said, the internet is something that most people aren’t comfortable trusting to just one entity — and for good reason. The ability to control information or gather data on users is unsettling. And that’s precisely why the FCC filed the Open Internet Order. It simply doesn’t make sense for us to allow companies to have unchecked power over the market. These sorts of systems aren’t just anti-consumer, they’re anti-capitalist, and they only serve to further support the wealthy and help entrench a fundamentally broken system.

Doom and gloom aside, Ajit Pai’s proposal could also just make your browsing experience suck a lot more. As Ars Technica reports, before 2015, services like video streaming could often be unstable — the companies that carried the signals would always have to work out an exchange when the signal left systems owned by one company and transitioned to those of another. Classifying ISPs as common carriers got rid of that problem, requiring providers to leave all transmitted data essentially alone. So even if you don’t care about the fate of the internet or think I’m being melodramatic, your YouTube surfing is still about to get a lot more frustrating.

The one upside in all of this is that Tmobile customers and those who take advantage of data-free services that their providers offer will get to keep using them. Previously, the FCC was investigating whether or not allowing consumers to use Spotify, for example, without taking from their data cap qualified as a violation of Net Neutrality (it totally does, by the way). Now, Pai’s suspended that investigation. That’s nice for people like myself who use TMo, but it’s hardly worth everything else we may stand to lose.

Pai’s scheduled the initial meeting for May 18. If you’re so inclined to leave your thoughts, the FCC typically takes comments from the public on proposed rule changes. It’s also worth following closely as Pai will be unveiling more details as we get closer to the meeting. Regardless, hopefully, one day, we won’t still be stuck in this tired fight.

This article was  published on geek.com by DANIEL STARKEY

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