What Is Net Neutrality?

Net Neutrality

1. What's the problem?

Q.What's the problem?

Most people get their high-speed Internet access from only a few telecommunications giants – Verizon, AT&T, Comcast, Time Warner, Cox, and Charter. The very few other smaller guys often have to rely on the big guys to serve their customers. When we send or receive data over the Internet, we expect those companies to transfer that data from one end of the network to the other. Period. We don't expect them to analyze or manipulate it. And for a while, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) had protections in place to prevent broadband providers from doing just that.

In January 2014, however, a federal court said the FCC had overstepped its bounds. But, while it also said that the FCC could impose new and potentially even stronger rules, the FCC has signaled that it may instead propose that Internet service providers be allowed to charge content providers for a faster conduit to consumers. That would effectively kill a major component of net neutrality.

2. What do you mean, they might "manipulate our data"?

Q.What do you mean, they might "manipulate our data"?

New technologies now allow telecom companies to scrutinize every piece of information we send or receive online – websites, email, videos, Internet phone calls, or data generated by games or social networks. And they can program the computers that route that information to interfere with the data flow by slowing down or blocking traffic and communicators that they don't like (and speeding up traffic they do like or that pays them extra for the privilege).

Imagine if the phone company could mess with your calls every time you tried to order pizza from Domino's, because Pizza Hut is paying them to route their calls first.

3. They're not allowed to do that, are they?

Q.They're not allowed to do that, are they?

The phone company isn't allowed to do that, and, for a while, the FCC said broadband providers couldn't either. In January, however, a federal court overturned the FCC's rules on a technicality. Now, unless the FCC takes action to support a free and open Internet, big broadband providers will actually have a much greater range of options for interfering with our communications than the phone companies ever had. It would be pretty difficult for a landline phone company to block individual calls or make other calls go through faster. Not so much for big broadband providers.

4. Why would the telecoms want to interfere with Internet data?

Q.Why would the telecoms want to interfere with Internet data?

Profit and other corporate interests. Companies might want to interfere with speech that makes them look bad, block applications that compete with their own, or increase their profit by forcing developers to pay more to avoid having their data blocked or slowed down.

5. Won't competition prevent them from doing any of this?

Q.Won't competition prevent them from doing any of this?

It should and normally it would — but it won't. First of all, manipulations of our data are not always easily detectable; content can be delayed or distorted in important but subtle ways.

Second, it costs a lot to build a big high-speed broadband service, so there aren't very many of them. They also tend to be big phone and cable companies because they already have the data "pipes" in place. Most Americans don't have more than a handful of legitimate high-speed broadband options at home (the vast majority have three or fewer). That means two things. One, customers can't switch if a big broadband providers starts messing around with their service. Two, big content providers like Netflix have to send their data through these "last-mile" gatekeepers. Right now, market competition just isn't enough to stop them from blocking services or charging more for a fast lane.

6. Have there been any actual instances of service providers interfering with the Internet, or is this just all theoretical?

Q.Have there been any actual instances of service providers interfering with the Internet, or is this just all theoretical?

Real abuses have happened consistently over the past decade.

Broadband providers have both the incentive and the ability to interfere with the Internet. That hasn't stopped network neutrality opponents from claiming that the threat is "theoretical," or that applying time-honored common carrier principles to the Internet is a "solution in search of a problem." In fact, there have already been numerous incidents of abuse:

AT&T's jamming of a rock star's political protest. During an August 2007 performance by the rock group Pearl Jam in Chicago, AT&T censored words from lead singer Eddie Vedder's performance. The ISP, which was responsible for streaming the concert, shut off the sound as Vedder sang, "George Bush, leave this world alone" and "George Bush find yourself another home." By doing so, AT&T, the self-advertised presenting sponsor of the concert series, denied viewers the complete exclusive coverage they were promised. Although Vedder's words contained no profanity, an AT&T spokesperson claimed that the words were censored to prevent youth visiting the website from being exposed to "excessive profanity." AT&T then blamed the censorship on an external Website contractor hired to screen the performance, calling it a mistake and pledging to restore the unedited version of Vedder's appearance online.

Comcast's throttling of online file-sharing through BitTorrent. In 2007, Comcast, the nation's largest cable TV operator and second largest ISP, discriminated against an entire class of online activities in 2007 by using deep packet inspection to block file transfers from customers using popular peer-to-peer networks such as BitTorrent, eDonkey, and Gnutella. Comcast's actions, which were confirmed in nationwide tests conducted by the Associated Press, were unrelated to network congestion, since the blocking took place at times when the network was not congested. Comcast blocked applications that are often used to trade videos — pirated content but also much legitimate content. Critics noted that Comcast hopes to sell online video itself. The FCC subsequently took action against Comcast for this abuse; Comcast stopped the throttling but also challenged the order in court and won, leading to a crisis in enforcement of network neutrality.

Verizon Wireless's censorship of NARAL Pro-Choice America. In late 2007, Verizon Wireless cut off access to a text-messaging program by the pro-abortion-rights group NARAL that the group used to send messages to its supporters. Verizon stated it would not service programs from any group "that seeks to promote an agenda or distribute content that, in its discretion, may be seen as controversial or unsavory to any of our users." Verizon Wireless reversed its censorship of NARAL only after widespread public outrage.

Telus' blocking of striking workers' web site. In 2005, the Canadian telecom, involved in a bitter labor dispute, blocked its Internet subscribers from accessing a website run by the union that was on strike against Telus.

So far these incidents have been just that — incidents. This kind of behavior has not yet become broadly accepted or "baked in" to the structure of the Internet. But without enforceable network neutrality rules in place, that could quickly happen. And the consistency of these abuses tells us all we need to know about what will happen if companies are permitted to exploit their power over our Internet connections.

7. So what exactly is "net neutrality," and what would it do?

Q.So what exactly is "net neutrality," and what would it do?

Network neutrality means applying well-established "common carrier" rules to the Internet in order to preserve its freedom and openness. Common carriage prohibits the owner of a network, that holds itself out to all-comers, from discriminating against information by halting, slowing, or otherwise tampering with the transfer of any data (except for legitimate network management purposes such as easing congestion or blocking spam).

Important Fact: Common carriage is not a new concept – these rules have a centuries-old history. They have long been applied to facilities central to the public life and economy of our nation, including canal systems, railroads, public highways, and telegraph and telephone networks. In fact, common carrier rules have already been written into the Telecommunications Act of 1996 by Congress; they just need to be applied to broadband Internet communications by the FCC.

Now, if — like the AOLs of yore — the broadband provider is also providing information, tools to access the Internet or various types of multi-media content itself, it has the First Amendment right to control that content. Just providing "dumb" pipes meant to move data from user to user, however, is quintessential common carriage.

8. Why should I care about net neutrality now?

Q.Why should I care about net neutrality now?

In the past, telecom companies were always forced – formally or informally – to adhere to net neutrality principles. As incidents of abuse have accumulated, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) acted to enforce rules against wired broadband providers preventing blocking or discrimination.

But! All that changed in January 2014 when a major court decision stripped the FCC of its power to enforce network neutrality protections under the regulatory framework it was using. This decision provides an opening for the telecom companies to begin exploiting technologies by monitoring and controlling data sent via their networks.

9. What can be done to preserve the freedom and openness of the Internet?

Q.What can be done to preserve the freedom and openness of the Internet?

The FCC can still protect the Internet. The agency was not blocked outright by the January court decision from enforcing network neutrality principles. It was blocked from doing so because it had classified broadband carriers as "information services" as defined in the 1996 Telecommunications Act. However, that classification never made sense; broadband carriers always fit much better under the law's definition of "telecommunications services." To remedy this, all the FCC has to do is reclassify Internet carriage as a "telecommunications service," which would automatically subject online communications to common carrier protections. Unfortunately, it has instead said it will propose a rule allowing companies to pay for access to a fast lane to deliver content to their customers. That’s still not the end of the story, however. The public will have the opportunity to weigh in before, according to media reports, the FCC votes on the new rules at the end of 2014.

10. Why does the ACLU care about preserving the openness of the Internet?

Q.Why does the ACLU care about preserving the openness of the Internet?

Network neutrality is a consumer issue, but it is also one of the foremost free speech issues of our time. In this day and age, it is pretty much impossible to get through life without using the Internet – which is why it's essential that our free speech rights are protected both on- and offline. After all, freedom of expression isn't worth much if the forums where people actually make use of it are not themselves free.

That is why the ACLU – a tireless defender of free speech and First Amendment rights for nearly a century – has long supported regulation to promote competition and innovation in telecommunications. The ACLU has been a principal participant in almost every Internet free speech case that has reached the U.S. Supreme Court in the past two decades, and our legislative staff has been aggressive on the issue in Congress and at the FCC. We continue to be vigilant on this issue.

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