One of the biggest scams of the Internet is in full swing right now. You may have heard of it. It’s called “net neutrality.”
Fundamentally, net neutrality is about preventing Internet service providers (ISPs) from throttling or blocking traffic or providing paid prioritization of certain content. In addition, specific rules proposed by the FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler would allow the FCC to arbitrate peering disputes between carriers. Traditionally, carriers have connected each other’s networks with each other for a nominal cost or none at all. The idea being that the mutual benefit of using each other’s network for transit is payment enough. The proposed FCC rules, however, will turn this once amicable transaction into a litigious battleground that could result in the destabilization of the Internet’s backbone.
I recall an article from a 1997 issue of Wired magazine which predicted the collapse of the Internet would be caused by increased growth without the infrastructure to support it. That never happened, in part due to technical innovation which kept up with growth, but also because ISPs and backbone carriers were able to throttle traffic during peak times to ensure everyone could have reasonably fast and reliable internet access.
Now, almost 20 years later, we’re looking at potential regulation that will micromanage how ISPs manage and build out their networks. As a network engineer, I understand the need to throttle or simply block certain types of traffic. But unfortunately, the technical facts have gotten lost amidst the raw politicization of the net neutrality debate. I recently saw a graphic put out by the pro-net neutrality group “Battle for the Net” that shows a picture of the United States Senate and a caption that asks, “Does your state have the Internet’s worst enemy?” It then proceeds to list all the Senators that are supposedly trying to “kill Net Neutrality.” And this is the problem with the net neutrality movement. It’s purely political and devoid of any thoughtful technical or practical discussion. Organizations like Battle for the Net don’t bother to make a case for net neutrality. They assume that it is an absolute good and that being for the Internet means being for net neutrality.
The discussion has devolved from a debate into a marketing battle plagued by word games and politics. Net neutrality advocates have adopted the language that this is “a battle for the Internet” and an effort to “keep the internet open.” Apparently, by breaking decades of precedent and giving the FCC more power to control what Internet service providers do, the Internet will somehow become better. The narrative they put forth is that the big bad cable companies with their zillions of dollars are trying to make end users’ Internet experience slow and expensive, and are fighting valiant efforts to “keep the internet free” (Nevermind the fact that the cable companies gave us broadband Internet and brought us out of the dial-up era to begin with.) This David versus Goliath theme is great for stirring emotions, but it falls flat in the face of a little bit of scrutiny. Google, whose income is more than double that of Comcast, is strongly in favor of “net neutrality” regulations. So is Netflix. And Facebook.
Regardless of where you stand on net neutrality, one thing is certain: this is not about big money corporations versus the gentle folks of the Internet. It is about giant corporations duking it out for power, control, and government favor. As usual, the politics of net neutrality has turned the debate into more of a sporting event where everyone roots for his own team no matter what. But it’s actually worse than that. If you’re against net neutrality, some will perceive you as being anti-Internet or against Internet freedom. I find this both amusing and disturbing. Amusing, because the notion that giving the FCC unprecedented regulatory power over the Internet will somehow increase freedom to be absurd. And disturbing, because so many have blindly taken sides on this debate without an understanding of its implications or what it’s even about.
One such implication is privacy. How will the FCC ensure that ISPs are complying with the new regulations and not throttling or blocking certain types of traffic? The only way to know is by looking at the traffic, which can only be done with detailed logs of what an ISP’s users are doing. This goes beyond what websites you visited or how many gigabytes you downloaded. This gets down to individual connections. What IP address and port did you connect to? What protocol were you using? Certainly, these things can be logged now, and in fact probably are. But the difference is that, as of now, the FCC has no authority to demand such logs. With net neutrality regulations in place, they will, and they will also have the power to exact fines if ISPs fail to retain logs for a certain period of time. So, you will be able to BitTorrent without restriction, but Uncle Sam is probably going to know about it. Of course, this is already happening with the NSA pretty much spying on everything. But again, the difference is that instead of spying secretly, the collection of your Internet activity will be open and shameless. That may not bother you. Honestly, it doesn’t really bother me. The point is that net neutrality regulations come with some pretty long and tangled strings attached. And it’s wise to unravel them and see where they lead before throwing in your support for the wolf in sheep’s clothing.