What’s the deal with net neutrality?

Published 3:00 am Saturday, June 16, 2018

In 2015, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) approved a series of regulations that provided guidance to the way internet service providers (ISP’s) could treat all online traffic.  The intent of the of the net neutrality regulations was simple: keep the internet fair and open.

The rules were designed to foster a neutral playing field for all internet content, identifying the internet service provider as the key component in the effort.  The ISP’s were instructed to treat all online content in the exact same manner.  The ISP’s could not intentionally speed up or slow down traffic to and from specific websites, applications, and, they could not position their own content in a more advantageous manner.

The ISP’s, whether it be traditional telephone service providers, cable companies, and others who provide access to the internet, are caught in the midst of a war of definitions and suggested ill-intent.

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At the core of the argument is an odd war of definitions.  Do the internet service providers provide access to telecommunications or information services?

Some argue that the providers offer a conduit, a means for its customers to access services and information of their choosing.  For this position, think of a traditional telephone.  I pick up the phone and decide with whom I want to speak.  The telephone company offers no guidance and doesn’t interfere with my phone call, they only provide the means to make the call happen.  If you view your internet service provider from this perspective, then you most likely agree that they are a telecommunications provider.

Others offer that the internet service providers offer access to information services.  Some providers do offer email and other services are part of their package for broadband internet access.  But the true bulk of the internet traffic is outside of the locally-managed services provided by the ISP.  The user seeks “information” from other providers.  If you employ a web-based search engine, you may not care how the transaction takes place – you only want to see the search results.  If you view your internet service provider as a gateway to information services, then you most likely agree that they are an information services provider.

So what’s the big deal?  Well, under U.S. law, if a company is classified as a telecommunications provider, then the FCC has the ability to impose strict regulations on the flow of traffic among the networks and its users.  However, if the provider isn’t classified as a telecommunications provider – say an information services broker – then, the FCC is less intrusive into the manner in which the user employs the company’s capabilities to access information.

So what does the repeal of net neutrality mean?

The current FCC chairman contends that ISP’s are information service providers and that the telecommunications label isn’t appropriate.  Therefore, the need for rules that require all internet traffic be treated equally aren’t necessary: the users shouldn’t care how they receive their information, only that it will arrive.

Furthermore, the removal of the net neutrality regulations presents a situation where the FCC is no longer the oversight group for complaints.  The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) may have the burden of managing complaints about ISP performance.

Why all the fuss and bother?

Providing of internet access is a complex and ever-growing service industry.  Many are concerned that businesses will prioritize traffic based on their own business needs or through business deals.

As an example, let’s say that an ISP, called SuperNet, is your home internet service provider.  You enjoy a streaming media service, called MovieNet.  However, MovieNet is owned by a competitor of SuperNet.  Under the previous net neutrality rules, SuperNet could not slow down, or, affect in any way, your traffic to MovieNet.  However, with the repeal of net neutrality, some suggest that SuperNet might slow down access to MovieNet and offer quicker access to its own streaming services.  Or SuperNet might offer a fee to MovieNet in order to speed up service to its customers.

With the repeal, ISP’s are now required to publicly disclose any blocking, throttling or paid prioritization of traffic through the ISP’s environment.  If complaints are reviewed and the FCC and FTC interpret the ISP’s actions are anti-competitive, action can occur.  However, it’s likely that simply publishing or informing customers will satisfy the latest changes.

Should we worry?  I’m hopeful that ISP’s will observe consumer demand and allow the traffic to flow, unfettered.  I suppose there could be yet another reclassification and interpretation and repeal of the latest repeal.

William Greg Price is the Chief Technology and Security officer for Troy University and the Director of the Alabama Computer Forensics Institute. He currently represents District 2 on the Pike County Board of Education.