Business Matters

Internet: Check My Flow Net Neutrality

Decision Looms

By Mark A. Diaz

In a drastic change of landscape, the Federal Communications Commission removed rules that essentially prohibited Internet Service Providers from throttling, blocking or giving preferential treatment to sites or apps with impunity.

“Ultimately their goal is that they (ISPs) are being paid once and they want to be paid twice,” said Jeff Buckingham, Chief Customer Officer of Digital West based in SLO County, “and they [have to] come up with a reason to get people to pay them twice.”

The FCC is an independent government agency created to regulate interstate communications by cable, radio, satellite, television and wire, The rules were established 2017 in an attempt to secure fair practices and appease public outcry as to how ISPs mange the of flow of information.

Imagine all the information in the internet is a vast body of water and Internet Service Providers (ISPs) corporations such as Comcast, Verizon and AT&T control the pipes that carry that water to a house. In this allegory, the faucets, spigots and showerheads in a house are made by different companies, for example Netflix or Facebook, or apps like Google Chrome or Firefox. All a resident has to do is turn the faucet on and water flows into the house.

However, what if an ISP like Verizon wanted to limit the flow of water to a tap because it wanted to promote its own faucet or if Microsoft paid AT&T to give its Bing, an arguably faulty showerhead, preferential speed with a faster flow of water? (Don’t know what Bing is? Google it.) A resident could still use their preferred water device and still have as much water as they wanted, just one drop at a time, which would essentially cause it to be useless. Essentially, this is the basis of net neutrality.

In the past, the FCC sought to keep ISPs from limiting the flow of information.  Companies such as AT&T, Sprint, and Verizon have been found guilty of actively trying to limit or block applications that impede on their bottom line. In 2005 Comcast was caught blocking or slowing peer-to-peer (P2P) networking apps like BitTorrent, and, though they originally denied allegations, the company finally admitted to the practice and voluntarily stopped after receiving a Cease and Desist order from the FCC.

Comcast’s actions were not an isolated case. From 2007-2009 AT&T forced Apple to block Skype and other competing Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP) on the iPhone; and from 2011-2013 AT&T, Verizon and Sprint blocked Google Wallet in favor of their own mobile payment service called ISIS (that’s not a typo.)

During oral arguments in the case Verizon v. FCC in 2013, which would determine if the FCC had jurisdiction to regulate how ISPs handle the flow of information, judges asked if Verizon would limit data flow or require payment for preferential treatment, Verizon Attorney Helgi Walker said, “I’m authorized to state from my client today that but for these rules we would be exploring those types of arrangements.”

Originally ISPs were classified under Title I of the Communications Act of 1934 (CA 1934), which had less stringent rules regulating information flow. After failing to have the authority keep ISPs accountable under Title I, the FCC reclassified ISPs under Title II which gave it the authority to monitor what the organization believed to be unfair business practices in 2015.

The change comes with the new leadership of the FCC appointed by President Trump. In 2017 Ajit Pai, a former lawyer for Verizon and FCC Commissioner was designated a Chairman of the FCC. In a statement entitled “Restoring Internet Freedom” issued by the FCC under Pai’s command, the same commission that sought and succeeded in invoking stricter regulations now calls them “heavy-handed” and that the new classification of ISPs “appears to have put at risk online investment and innovation, threatening the very open Internet it purported to preserve.”

Buckingham admits that whenever the government is involved, regulations have the potential of becoming burdensome. However, he believes that these ISPs that dominate the internet service in the United States need to invest in improving infrastructure rather than finding subversive ways of charging their clients.

“The reality is whenever you have government doing anything there is always going to be overreach,” said Buckingham, “and mistakes and things like that. To me, the real question here comes down to the lesser of two evils…I’m not opposed to rolling back regulations where it makes sense.  With net neutrality, the concern is that it only benefits a few large companies and nobody else and that’s my concern.”

Both sides of the heatedly debated topic claim that they are for internet freedom. One side believes that it is fighting against monopolies from power-hungry corporations while the other side maintains that regulations are killing a once thriving industry. Needless to say, that despite what the FCC ruled this last week, the debate is far from over. Buckingham speculates that there will be lawsuits filed against the FCC if it changes the rules again since there are protocols in place to keep policies from flip-flopping, which does create instability in markets.

This article originally appeared on SLOCountyBusinessMatters.com.

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