hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


News & Issues June 2017


Internet equality for all?

Some in region warn of fallout in battle over net neutrality


Contributing writer


The future of the Internet is at stake in regulatory changes now being debated in Washington, and the effects of these changes will be felt in local offices, living rooms and libraries, area advocates say.

Last month, the Federal Communications Commission voted to start the process of repealing “net neutrality” rules that supporters say were intended to ensure access to the Internet remains equal and open. The vote is part of an effort by the Trump administration and Republicans in Congress to reduce regulation of telecommunications companies.

At issue is whether the infrastructure of the Internet will be regulated as a public utility, similar to basic services such as water and electricity, or if it will be considered as a strictly commercial commodity, with rules, prices and availability determined solely by market forces and the decisions of corporate Internet service providers, or ISPs – companies such as Spectrum, Verizon and AT&T.

The results will affect everyone, said Tom Roe, the artistic director of WGXC-90.7 FM, a community radio station in Hudson, N.Y., and its parent organization, Wave Farm, a nonprofit that supports creative audio expression.

“Unfortunately, people won’t realize that losing net neutrality is a problem until after it has happened,” Roe said. “Then, it is possible they’ll find they are paying more and will also have a more difficult time accessing Web sites as quickly and easily as they are used to.”
The change also could affect providers of content over the Internet, including businesses, organizations and individuals that have Web sites for e-commerce.


Fast and slow lanes?
Net neutrality has been the de facto guiding principle of the Internet since its inception, but it wasn’t until well into the Obama administration that the FCC adopted regulations to require ISPs to keep it that way. Opponents, including the ISPs, say those regulations are unnecessary and counterproductive.

Under the concept of net neutrality, the Internet is an “open” network for communications in which all data is treated equally in the way it is handled. This means that all content providers have equal ability to send and receive data, including Web sites, streaming video and audio, e-mails, telephonic communications and other content at the same rates of speed and accessibility.
In this way, an independent blogger theoretically can distribute her writing and opinions on an equal footing with The New York Times, while the owner of a small retail store a can send data to customers at the same speed as Wal-Mart.

Critics warn that this equality of access could change radically if the ISPs that distribute data to homes and businesses choose to “throttle” (slow down) or even block certain Web sites while enabling other sites to reach users at a faster speed.

Without net neutrality, for example, ISPs could choose to generate revenues by charging Web sites more for faster tiers of service. Those who aren’t willing to pay extra would have their data sent at slower speeds, which would discourage users.

Supporters of FCC regulation also warn that without net neutrality, ISPs would be able to give an advantage to their own commercial activities. So a company like Verizon could offer its own streaming movie site at a premium speed while making it difficult for competing sites to reach customers at usable speeds.

Some also fear the loss of net neutrality could open the door to corporate censorship of content.

Voluntary compliance vs. regulation

The role of government in regulating the Internet has been subject to political jockeying over the years. For most of the Internet’s history, the FCC largely left net neutrality up to voluntary compliance by the ISPs, although it intervened in some cases where ISPs appeared to be hobbling or favoring certain content providers.

Overall, ISPs have adhered to the principles of net neutrality. The companies say it is in their best interest to ensure that all customers receive the highest level of speed and reliability. They also have been careful to avoid actions that might spur calls for tighter regulation.
But critics say that in some court cases and lobbying efforts, ISPs have been suggesting that strict neutrality isn’t required.

The issue has grown in significance over the past two decades, as the Internet has become the backbone of the nation’s communications infrastructure.

“The Internet has been a huge democratizing force, as an open platform for ideas, opinions and art, both nationally and internationally,” said Barron Koralesky, the chief information officer at Williams College. “But if the Internet becomes over-controlled by the ISPs, that would be an undemocratic move in the opposite direction. The loss of this free flow of information would be a terrible loss for the nation and the world.”

In an effort to protect net neutrality, the FCC issued a proposed “open Internet” order in 2010. But Verizon filed a legal challenge to the order, and courts ruled the commission’s approach unconstitutional. This set off a new rule-making effort in which the FCC received millions of public comments.

In 2015, the commission came up with revised order intended to address the constitutional issues while preventing ISPs from blocking, throttling or prioritizing content providers.
The FCC’s new strategy was to reclassify the Internet as a “common carrier,” or a vital telecommunications service subject to regulation as a public utility. The courts upheld this approach.

Now, congressional Republicans and the Trump administration are trying to reverse the public-utility approach. Trump has appointed a new FCC chairman, Ajit Pai, a former associate general counsel for Verizon and an outspoken advocate of deregulation.

Pai and his allies aim to undo the “common carrier” status of Internet service, placing ISPs back into a category of communications providers that are less subject to regulation.
The FCC vote in May opened the issue to a public comment period, which is now under way. After that, a final vote expected later this year.

Some members of Congress are closely watching the issue. Locally, U.S. Sens. Edward Markey, D-Mass., and Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., have been particularly outspoken in defending the public-utility regulations the FCC is moving to repeal.

“Whether you’re a mom and pop store or a national retailer, you should have the same access to customers,” Sanders said in a statement issued after last month’s vote. “But with the FCC under Republican control, your access to a free and fair Internet is in serious jeopardy. … We need to let Mr. Pai know that we demand that he protects the needs of all people, and not just Comcast and Verizon.”


Congressional action
Proponents of deregulation argue that treating Internet service as a public utility will hinder investment and innovation. They contend that market forces are the most effective way to ensure that the Internet is widely available and accessible and continues to develop.

Although it has challenged FCC regulation, Verizon claims to support the concept of net neutrality. Verizon has become a content provider through the acquisition of businesses such as AOL, and as such the company says it has a stake in protecting an open Internet. Verizon argued in a recent statement on its Web site that Congress should establish updated ground rules.

“In the past we have criticized the FCC for applying outdated rules to the fast-moving Internet ecosystem,” Verizon said in its statement. “We still think that’s true, but let’s be fair: Congress hasn’t updated the FCC’s toolbox for over 20 years, so the FCC is working with the only tools it has, however inadequate. Congress can give the FCC the tools it needs to do this properly and on a legally sustainable basis. It should do so.”

Skeptics say, however, that the current makeup of Congress under Republican control means that if there were any congressional action, it would favor the corporate interests of the ISPs rather than the spirit of the open Internet.

Congress voted in March, for example, to repeal an impending Obama-era rule that would have prevented ISPs from selling or otherwise sharing for commercial purposes information about the Web sites their customers visit – as well as other personal and financial data they glean.
The March vote to relax the privacy requirements on ISPs broke nearly along party lines, with Republicans supporting repeal of the privacy regulations. Two Republicans representing eastern New York – Reps. John Faso, R-Kinderhook, and Elise Stefanik, R-Willsboro – were among a handful of Republicans across the country who voted to preserve the privacy regulations.


Technology outpacing regulation
Although net neutrality is caught up in broader partisan divides over government regulation, the issue has transcended familiar political and ideological divisions to some extent. In the previous battle over net neutrality, coalitions of progressive and conservative groups and large corporate content providers all were allied on the side of defending the concept of an open Internet.
Finding the right strategy for regulating the Internet is a significant challenge, explained Harold Hastings, an adjunct professor of computer science at Bard College at Simon’s Rock in Great Barrington.

“The Internet has basically become a utility that everyone relies on and needs,” Hastings said. “And like a utility, it is often a de facto monopoly for the companies that provide access to it. So protecting the open Internet is vital. If we lose net neutrality now, we’re not likely to be able to restore it in the future.”

Hastings, who as an academic was among those using the network that was the forerunner of the Internet, said the trick is figuring out how to protect the Internet without hampering its technological advancement – and its role in society.

“The problem is that the technology moves much faster than the ability of government to regulate it,” Hastings said. “With the pace of change, it’s difficult to know what is being done or how to enforce it. Also, many of the companies that provide ISP service, and Internet content, have become so large and consolidated they are almost like governments in themselves.”
Even now, he added, net neutrality is not always the reality, because larger Web sites and content providers have other technical and financial advantages, such as the ability to use servers in multiple locations to send out their content faster.

But Hastings said it’s important to search for solutions that balance the public interest with commercial goals.

“One idea that I’ve suggested is a public option,” he said, explaining that this concept would involve a public, open access Internet provider as an alternative to commercial service.
“I’m not against corporations, and if they can provide solutions at reasonable prices, I’m all for it,” he said. “But if so, they should also be able to compete with a public provider too.”


Fearing the fallout
The new uncertainty surrounding net neutrality has left many individual, institutional and business users of the Internet with questions and concerns about how the proposed regulatory rollback would affect them.

Roe said, for example, that WGXC and Wave Farm rely on the Internet to disseminate programming, both locally and in other geographic regions that are not reached by their FM radio signal.

“It would be hard for us to reach listeners if the ISPs make it more expensive to send our programming over the Internet in a reasonable way,” Roe said. “Large commercial corporations that own many radio stations may be able to afford to pay extra for faster speeds. But smaller operations could be off in a corner where it would be difficult for audiences to find or listen to us because of slower speeds.”

As the person who manages the Internet services at Williams College, Koralesky said he is concerned about the potential impact on colleges as both providers and consumers of information. A variety of professional organizations representing academic institutions and libraries are actively working to protect net neutrality, he added.

Koralesky said Williams now budgets for the overall purchase of bandwidth to provide Internet service for its students, faculty and staff, without regard for how the bandwidth is used.
“Making sure we have enough bandwidth for all of the college is already a challenge,” he said. “But we don’t have to allocate or decide how that bandwidth is used. However, if the ISPs start to control access and set prices based on different categories, colleges may have to deal with setting priorities and making other decisions that would be very difficult.”

Having to make these distinctions would hinder the free flow of information and ideas, he added.
“One of my big concerns is how it would affect the ability to conduct research,” Koralesky said. “Students and faculty currently have access to a wide range of information, including studies that other researchers make available online. However, if ISPs put up barriers and additional costs to post online, and if the information can’t get to people, then many sources may decide it’s not worth doing.”

There are other practical implications. Koralesky said the ability to gain access to information could vary widely, depending on which ISP is being used, the carrier’s individual policies and what it charges to content providers.

“People would get very different views of the Internet, based on what ISP they are connecting through,” he said.