Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Slow Down

On Friday, just one day after the FCC’s historic1 vote to kill net neutrality rules, Ajit Pai made an appearance on the “Fox and Friends” morning show to deliver a truly baffling statement.

John Bowden, the Hill:

Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Ajit Pai said Friday that supporters of net neutrality provisions that were repealed Thursday have been proven wrong, as internet users wake up still able to send emails and use Twitter after the regulations were struck down.

Of course, Pai isn’t stupid, and he knows that this is a completely disingenuous defence. For one thing, it will take sixty days after the repeal is published in the Federal Registry for it to take effect. Yet, even though this explanation is bullshit, it is enabled by two related phenomena.

The first is that net neutrality is a fairly esoteric policy issue, despite sounding simple on the surface. Indeed, net neutrality policies are pretty simple for ISPs and consumers to understand: all traffic passing over the network is treated equality. It requires them to not bias nor hinder any data. But the pragmatic consequences of not having net neutrality policies in place are much harder to grok.

That has led to people trying to explain the negative impacts of yesterday’s vote with all sorts of analogies and situations, to the point of farce. That’s the second phenomenon: a muddying of the waters by well-meaning activists, writers, and public figures. An internet that lacks these policies means that ISPs have far more power over the data transmitted via their networks. That theoretically means that they could make Twitter load just one word at a time, or they could charge subscribers five dollars per month to access Facebook. But, realistically, that won’t happen.

What is far more likely, in my mind, is a quieter and more insidious campaign by ISPs to create private marketplaces under their control. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to imagine tiered internet plans where “premium” video services — the Netflixes and YouTubes of the world — would get guaranteed smooth service at faster speeds, while other media services would be streamed at the same lower speed as the webpages you read and emails you receive.

Of course, the only way this guarantee would be made is if the ISP were to strike a deal with the media service, and it’s unlikely that consumers would know about this until Netflix inevitably bumps up their rates to make up for their increased costs. Consumers also probably wouldn’t be wholly aware of the dynamics of this scheme if, say, Vimeo were to refuse to pay to be included in the hypothetical premium media package. When every website is loading slowly, you blame your computer, WiFi connection, or ISP; when only a single website is slow, you probably blame the website.

ISPs might even charge enticingly lower rates for a service like this, hoping they’ll make up the difference in increased subscribers and contractually-obligated fees from media services. It will look appealing, especially if the majority of your web experience centres around the giants of the web. But it will also mean that competing services will be fighting against established players that have paid to more deeply entrench themselves in consumers’ web habits.

As major ISPs increasingly consolidate into media conglomerates,2 there’s also reason to worry that they favour their own media in ways that may not legally violate American antitrust acts. Even if they do, regulators may be hesitant to prosecute in a generally-weakened antitrust climate.

But let’s be optimistic for a moment and, like Ajit Pai and Ben Thompson, let’s assume that ISPs will act in consumers’ best interests and somehow innovate with their utility-like service. In other words, let’s assume that the internet of two or three years from now works pretty much the same as it does today, just faster, cheaper, and more available to everyone. Why would anyone want rules like these in place?

In short, they’re a legally-binding guarantee that ISPs must not engage in the kind of behaviour described above. It also prevents ISPs from doing the kinds of stuff that Pai said was evidence that the internet didn’t collapse the day after his vote: block email and Twitter. Given the staggering influence ISPs have over the information and media we consume, the amount of soft power they now have is greatly concerning. They won’t do the things described earlier, but they could; they could do it, but they won’t. They promise not to, because doing so would be absurd in the minds of consumers; it would run counter to our learned expectations of how the internet works.

If you buy the ISPs’ argument that these rules are just needless nannying on the part of the federal government, it’s understandable why they and their lobbyists would want to tell everyone before the FCC’s vote that we should all calm down. That there was nothing to fear, because they profit best when everyone uses their internet connections as they do today. But, as often happens, what ISPs said after the FCC voted to rescind these regulations differs greatly from the picture they painted before.

Jacob Kastrenakes, the Verge:

We reached out to 10 big or notable ISPs to see what their stances are on three core tenets of net neutrality: no blocking, no throttling, and no paid prioritization. Not all of them answered, and the answers we did get are complicated.

[…]

In particular, none of the ISPs we contacted will make a commitment — or even a comment — on paid fast lanes and prioritization. And this is really where we expect to see problems: ISPs likely won’t go out and block large swaths of the web, but they may start to give subtle advantages to their own content and the content of their partners, slowly shaping who wins and loses online.

No kidding.

There’s a reason Comcast removed from their website a promise to not engage in paid prioritization. There’s a reason ISPs fought so hard against Title II and it isn’t because ISPs just love innovation so gosh darn much; and, of course, there’s a reason Comcast is eager to help write new legislation.

So you’ve heard this story before. You know that analogies that try to explain net neutrality often muddy the waters of an already complex issue. You know that ISPs are lobbying the hell out of Congress to try to get a law passed that would take the FCC out of the equation for good. Ajit Pai and the other FCC Commissioners who voted with him know all of this, too. Why write it all again?

Well, there is a glimmer of hope for you to have your say, now. Being an appointed and independent body, the FCC is not democratic and is not subject to continued public approval, per se.3 Now, though, this issue has been bunted over to elected officials. Divided as the United States may be today, an overwhelming majority of Americans disagree with the Title II net neutrality repeal. So when your representatives are helping write the new net neutrality rulebook, make sure they know just how much you approve of maintaining Title II-like regulations.

It’s a complicated topic, but I’m sure if you explain it to them really, really slowly, they’ll get it.


  1. Much in the same way that, for example, the Commodity Futures Modernization Act was also historic↩︎

  2. Rob Rousseau on Twitter:

    this whole year has been beyond parody but net neutrality rules being reversed against massive popular support on the same day that Disney effectively becomes the world’s only media company is still a bit of a stretch

    ↩︎

  3. I still think that the FCC erred by not taking into account the public comments posted on this issue. ↩︎