You don’t know what you have until it’s gone, according to the old wise saying. We have learned to value Internet as the ultimate frontier of freedom and equality. Anyone anywhere can use whatever service she likes or communicate with any other person. But will it always be this way? Not necessary.
Let’s create a fictive example. Imagine a business development guy at the power company. He’s reading the paper and notices that Apple is in the headlines. They did a nice profit last year, and he gets a brilliant business idea. Their electrical network is used to supply charging power to a lot of Apple devices, so he calls Apple and proposes a deal. The electrical company will continue to provide charging power for Apple devices and Apple will pay them for allowing that. That would of course be on top of the normal fee customers pay for the electricity. Otherwise the electricity company would regretfully be forced to prevent Apple-device from charging in their network.
Would that be right? Of course not, it would be extortion. This example is fortunately purely fictive, and even technically impossible as the power company can’t control what customers do with the electricity. But Internet is lot more complex than the power grid. Internet Service Providers can monitor our traffic and see what we are using our broadband connection for. So this scenario is unfortunately possible on the Internet. Not only possible, it’s reality.
Do you remember the Netflix vs. Comcast affair about a year ago? Internet Service Provider Comcast’s subscribers received really poor performance on video streaming service Netflix, until Netflix started to pay money directly to Comcast. Some call it a normal peering agreement, some greedy extortion. Netflix vs. Comcast differs from the fictive power company in one way, Netflix sells a high-volume service that cause significant load on Comcast’s network. That makes it a bit easier to understand Comcast’s points, but one fact remains. Comcast’s customers have already purchased broadband connections and paid to get any Internet content, including Netflix-videos, delivered to their homes. And Comcast has gladly taken that money.
The Federal Communications Commission in US also agrees that something needs to be done. They made a decision on February 26th 2015 that reclassifies Internet access as a common carrier service. This means more tools to enforce net neutrality and prevent the “greedy power company” business model. Net neutrality activists all over the world are celebrating this as an important win, but let’s not be too happy yet. Anything can happen in US’s legal and political systems and there are still mighty powers who don’t want to let a profitable business model go just like that. It ain’t over until the fat lady sings.
Internet Service Providers (ISPs) accumulate a significant power when building large customer bases. Not only do they get income from the customers’ fees, they are also in a position where they can control what content is delivered and at what speed. Net neutrality is, among other things, preventing misuse of this power. It may not be a widespread problem today, but there is a significant risk it will become one unless we do something. Imagine Comcast running a service that competes with Netflix. Comcast could simply terminate the deal with Netflix to eliminate one competitor. This would in practice mean that Comcast’s video streaming would be the only working choice for Comcast’s customers. That is unless we have strong net neutrality rules that enforce equal treatment of network services, and ensure that we have a choice no matter what ISP we have signed up with.
This is why net neutrality is important for you, me and everybody else. Internet is a fundamental service just like water, electricity and the road network. We don’t want the power company to dictate how we use electricity, and we don’t want our ISP to control how we use Internet.
PS. By the way, we have a great tool that is designed to improve security and privacy, but it can also be used to circumvent censorship and other net neutrality violations. F-Secure Freedome.
Image by Electronic Frontier Foundation (eff.org)
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