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Net neutrality and the future of the free internet


California state lawmakers are preparing for another fight with the Trump administration, in an effort to reinstate federal net neutrality rules that they say are crucial to a fair, open and free internet.

Net neutrality is the principle that Internet service providers (ISP) must treat all data on the internet the same, and not discriminate or charge differently by user, content, website, platform, application, type of attached equipment, or method of communication. For instance, under these principles, internet service providers are unable to intentionally block, slow down or charge money for specific websites and online content. The term was coined by Columbia University media law professor Tim Wu in 2003.

Senate President Pro Tem Kevin De León (D-Los Angeles) has introduced legislation that would task the California Public Utilities Commission with establishing new regulations, making it unlawful for broadband companies to block or limit access to internet services in California. This approach would be enforced by the attorney general. State Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) is working with a coalition of lawmakers and tech advocates to create their own new set of net neutrality rules. The two legislators have agreed to work together even though their favored approaches to the problem are different. Regardless of the avenue, the end goal is to reinstate internet freedom in the state of California. Whichever approach is adopted on the state level, legislators will still have a mountain to climb in the effort to change back federal regulations to a more favorable position.

The net neutrality rules, put in place under President Barack Obama in February 2015, barred broadband and wireless companies such AT&T Inc., Charter Communications Inc. and Verizon Communications from selling faster delivery of some data, slowing speeds for certain video streams and other content, and discriminating against legal material online.

The Federal Communications Commission, led by then-Chairman Tom Wheeler, voted in December to roll those rules back, with Republicans calling for an end to the utility-like oversight of internet service providers,

Detractors of net neutrality claim the policy inhibited providers’ growth and innovation, while supporters believe it ensures free and open communication online.

The internet is a valuable medium through which people can express themselves and share ideas and has become an increasingly important tool through which democracy and human rights activists mobilize and advocate for political, social, and economic reform. States have devised subtle and not-so-subtle ways to filter, monitor, and otherwise obstruct or manipulate the openness of the internet.

“We cannot allow the profits and political interests of internet service providers to outweigh the public interest in a free and open internet,” said De Leon this month at a news conference in San Jose. “If the Trump administration won’t protect consumers, the state of California will.”

A widely cited example of a violation of net neutrality principles was Comcast’s secret slowing (“throttling”) of uploads from peer-to-peer file sharing (P2P) applications. Comcast did not stop blocking these protocols, like BitTorrent, until they were ordered to by the FCC.

Another example that made headlines was when The Madison River Communications company was fined $15,000 by the FCC, in 2004, for restricting their customers’ access to Vonage, which was rivaling their own services. AT&T has been caught limiting access to FaceTime, so only those users who paid for AT&T’s new shared data plans could access the application. Last summer, Verizon Wireless was accused of throttling after users noticed that videos played on Netflix and YouTube were slower than usual. Verizon denied the accusations and blamed “network testing” for the slower speeds at the time.

A possible worry to internet users is now these major companies will be able to slow down their competitors’ content or block political opinions they disagree with. Namely there will be no ordinances in place to prevent them from charging extra fees to the few content companies that can afford to pay for preferential treatment — relegating everyone else to a slower tier of service.

According to FreeThePress “The consequences will be particularly devastating for marginalized communities media outlets have misrepresented or failed to serve. People of color, the LGBTQ community, indigenous peoples and religious minorities in the United States rely on the open internet to organize, access economic and educational opportunities, and fight back against systemic discrimination. The open internet allows people of color to tell their own stories and organize for racial justice.”

Advocates of the movement to save the internet also cite the part that mainstream media has played in the misrepresentation and underrepresentation of communities of color. With the remainder of the media-ownership rules that essentially prevented monopolies being more or less eradicated under the Republican controlled FCC last year, minority communities can expect to have even less control over the narratives that represent them to society.

“The lack of diverse ownership is a primary reason why the media have gotten away with criminalizing and dehumanizing communities of color,” stated the free speech organization.

The freedom of the internet has served as a way to bypass the gatekeepers of mainstream media and give disenfranchised communities the opportunity to share their own stories, create unbiased news programming, inform their communities, market small businesses, launch and spread social justice movements, and the possibilities go on. Internet service providers could essentially block these efforts and advancements.

Black Lives Matter is a major example of a social justice system that was essentially birthed and expanded almost exclusively through the internet. From calls for meetings, rallies, and boycotts to sharing footage from instances of police brutality, and keeping communities informed of legislation to be aware of that could be affecting their rights, the movement undoubtedly would not be what it is today with complete internet freedom. Needless to say, there are entities that would want to quell these types of efforts, and unfortunately, these rule rollbacks have made it a lot easier. Without net neutrality, activists and advocates for a plethora of issues would lose a vital platform.

Also, tech startups such as Airbnb, Google parent Alphabet, Amazon, Dropbox, Facebook, Microsoft, Netflix, Twitter, Snapchat, and Spotify— likely would not have seen the success that they have without the freedom of the internet and have all made that opposition to the roll back of net neutrality known.

Apple made headlines this week but not for booming cell phone sales to which they have become accustomed. The tech giant, was called out for blocking an app to its app store that would have enabled users to detect whether internet service providers were complying with net neutrality guidelines or throttling traffic to a users device. After quite a bit of bad publicity regarding the decision, the app called Wehe, is now available to Apple and Android users

Another issue lies with the fact that poorer communities already suffer from the digital divide that persists between high and low income wage earners across America.

“We have over 62 million Americans without internet at home. That’s about 20 percent of the American population, which is crazy for the country that invented the internet,” said Chike Aguh, CEO of EveryoneON, a nonprofit that works to close the digital divide.

The primary reason these 62 million people aren’t connected is the price of internet. “Cost is 60 to 70 percent of it,” Aguh said.

Aguh said closing the digital divide is about making the internet affordable, accessible and a positive user experience for all.

An article entitled “Digital Divide by Design” by L.A. Ortega maintains the digital divide is not determined by connection alone but instead can be defined three ways: 1) Families who do not have quality, affordable Internet at home, or 2) head of household not using the Internet, or 3) parents in the home who are unaware of the powerful resources and potential dangers on the Internet. “If any one of these are true, this family falls into the digital divide. The maximization of online resources for the benefit of the family coupled with the mitigation of Internet dangers and invasion of privacy are as important as the connection to the internet itself,” said Ortega. The residual effects of this decision are far reaching in many ways.

Faith leaders are among those supporting the pushback against the Federal Communications Commission’s decision as well.

In the weeks leading up to the FCC’s vote last month, religious leaders emerged as key supporters of net neutrality. “Modern communications are essential for our home faith institutions, to share scripture, help neighbors, support each other and raise funds to support our work,” read a statement signed by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Islamic Society of North America, the National Council of Churches and eight other faith groups.

Since the FCC’s decision last month, religious leaders have been circulating a petition that describes net neutrality as a moral issue. “The internet has been one of the greatest levelers we’ve ever had,” said Cheryl Leanza, a policy adviser on media advocacy for the United Church of Christ and co-founder of Faithful Internet.

California isn’t the only state making a stand against the roll back of net neutrality. This week, Montana became the first state to push back against the FCC when Governor Steve Bullock signed an executive order requiring any service providers with state contracts to follow net neutrality rules.

“This is a simple step states can take to preserve and protect net neutrality. We can’t wait for folks in Washington D.C. to come to their senses and reinstate these rules,” Bullock said in a statement. “Montana’s future depends on a free and open internet,” he tweeted, adding that he hoped the state’s initiative would inspire other states to follow suit. In a subsequent tweet he offered to pass on a copy of the order to other municipalities. .

Twenty-one states, the District of Columbia and several public interest groups have filed major lawsuits to block the repeal of the Federal Communications Commission’s net neutrality rules, marking the start of a high-stakes legal battle over the future of the internet.

“The FCC’s plan to repeal regulations that allow equal access to the internet and prevent companies from blocking you from visiting websites they don’t want you to see is an attack on consumers and the spirit of access to information,” said Congresswoman Karen Bass in a statement. “Freedom of information is a cornerstone of democracy. When it’s restricted, citizens are left to wonder what their government is hiding,” she said.