Net neutrality and the future of the free internet

Toll roads on the information superhighway

J.D. Williams O.W. Contributor | 1/25/2018, midnight
California state lawmakers are preparing for another fight with the Trump...

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.