HOW ‘NET NEU­TRAL­ITY’ BE­CAME A HOT-BUT­TON IS­SUE

Apple Magazine - - Summary -

For a fun­da­men­tally nerdy sub­ject, net neu­tral­ity is push­ing a lot of po­lit­i­cal but­tons.

The lat­est salvo is over a Cal­i­for­nia law that re­stores a ban on cable, wire­less and other broad­band providers from im­ped­ing peo­ple’s abil­ity to use their fa­vorite apps and ser­vices. The fed­eral gov­ern­ment had re­scinded that ban, and the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion is seek­ing to block Cal­i­for­nia’s ef­fort as an im­po­si­tion on fed­eral pre­rog­a­tives.

Though net neu­tral­ity started off more than a decade ago as an in­sight into how to make net­works work most ef­fi­ciently, it has taken on much larger so­cial and po­lit­i­cal di­men­sions lately. The is­sue has emerged as an an­ti­monopoly ral­ly­ing point and even a fo­cus for “re­sis­tance” to the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion.

“Any time the cable com­pa­nies and the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion are on one side, it looks good for com­pa­nies to be on the other side,” Bos­ton Law School pro­fes­sor Daniel Lyons said.

But the idea hasn’t al­ways been po­lit­i­cal or par­ti­san. Net neu­tral­ity traces back to an en­gi­neer­ing maxim called the “end-to-end prin­ci­ple,” a self-reg­u­lat­ing net­work that put con­trol in the hands of end users rather than a cen­tral au­thor­ity. Tra­di­tional cable-TV ser­vices, for in­stance, re­quired spe­cial equip­ment and con­trolled what chan­nels are shown on TV. With an end-to-end net­work like the in­ter­net, the types of equip­ment, apps, ar­ti­cles and video ser­vices per­mit­ted are lim­ited only to imag­i­na­tion.

And the in­ter­net sub­se­quently grew like no­body’s busi­ness — largely be­cause it wasn’t any­one’s busi­ness.

But as in­ter­net use ex­panded, so did the power of the big com­pa­nies that of­fer in­ter­net ser­vice to the masses. It be­came clear that they could, and some­times would, re­strict what peo­ple did. The As­so­ci­ated Press found in 2007 that Com­cast was block­ing or slow­ing down some file-shar­ing. AT&T blocked Skype and other in­ter­net-call­ing ser­vices on the iPhone un­til 2009.

Law pro­fes­sor Tim Wu, now at Columbia Uni­ver­sity, coined the term “net neu­tral­ity” in 2003 to ar­gue for gov­ern­ment rules that would prevent big in­ter­net providers from dis­crim­i­nat­ing against tech­nol­ogy and ser­vices that clashed with other as­pects of their busi­ness. Al­low­ing such dis­crim­i­na­tion, he rea­soned, would choke off in­no­va­tion.

Big telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions com­pa­nies, on the other hand, ar­gue that they should be able to con­trol the pipes they built and owned.

The Fed­eral Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Com­mis­sion sub­scribed to the prin­ci­ple of net neu­tral­ity for over a decade and en­shrined that as spe­cific rules in 2015 un­der chair­man Tom Wheeler, an Obama ap­pointee. Among the rules: Broad­band com­pa­nies couldn’t block web­sites and apps of their choos­ing. Nor could they charge Net­flix and other video ser­vices ex­tra to reach view­ers more smoothly.

Once Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump took of­fice, net neu­tral­ity be­came one of his first tar­gets as part of broader gov­ern­ment dereg­u­la­tion. The FCC chair­man he ap­pointed, Ajit Pai, made roll­back a top pri­or­ity.

And thus net neu­tral­ity be­came in­creas­ingly po­lit­i­cal. As a vote loomed for months, the once-ob­scure con­cept was de­bated end­lessly on talk shows and on­line chats. Big-time Hol­ly­wood pro­ducer Shonda Rhimes tweeted a link to a story about sav­ing net-neu­tral­ity on her life­style web­site. Ac­tor Mark Ruf­falo urged peo­ple to con­tact mem­bers of Con­gress by tweet­ing, “Long live cute dog videos on YouTube! #RIPin­ter­net.”

The de­bate cre­ated strange bed­fel­lows: Sup­port for net neu­tral­ity comes from many of the same peo­ple who are also crit­i­cal of the data-suck­ing tech gi­ants who ben­e­fit from it.

Yet on net neu­tral­ity, th­ese tech com­pa­nies got to be the “good guy,” sid­ing on the side of the younger “dig­i­tal first” gen­er­a­tion and con­sumer groups call­ing for more pro­tec­tion. No mat­ter that th­ese com­pa­nies are keep­ing their own busi­ness in­ter­ests at heart, as a net-neu­tral­ity roll­back could mean higher costs for ac­cess to the “pipes.”

Politi­cians glommed on to the de­bate to ap­pear con­sumer friendly.

“No politi­cian will ever lose votes by sup­port­ing net neu­tral­ity,” said Gus Hur­witz, law pro­fes­sor at the Uni­ver­sity of Ne­braska and a mem­ber of the con­ser­va­tive group The Fed­er­al­ist So­ci­ety. “It’s an ill-de­fined term that vot­ers don’t re­ally un­der­stand other than that it is a scary con­cept they know they don’t want to lose.”

Mean­while, ISPs haven’t done them­selves any fa­vors in ap­peal­ing to the con­sumer. They’ve long had a rep­u­ta­tion for bad ser­vice and high prices. Un­like the high-pro­file sup­port for net neu­tral­ity, the op­po­si­tion was lim­ited to be­hindthe-scenes lob­by­ing.

None­the­less, the FCC rolled back the net­neu­tral­ity rules last De­cem­ber on a 3-2 party-line vote. The de­ci­sion took ef­fect in June.

On Mon­day, the Supreme Court de­clined to hear ap­peals from the broad­band in­dus­try to strike down a lower court rul­ing in 2016 that was in fa­vor of net neu­tral­ity. That ef­fec­tively shut down an ap­peal that had al­ready be­come largely moot when the FCC rolled back the rules. But in other are­nas the fight is likely to drag on. Sev­eral tech com­pa­nies in­clud­ing Mozilla and Vimeo are chal­leng­ing the FCC’s roll­back de­ci­sion in a fed­eral ap­peals court. That’s sep­a­rate from the chal­lenge to the Cal­i­for­nia law, which is on hold un­til the tech com­pa­nies’ law­suit is re­solved. Oral ar­gu­ments in the tech com­pa­nies’ case are ex­pected in Fe­bru­ary.

Ore­gon, Wash­ing­ton and Ver­mont have also ap­proved leg­is­la­tion re­lated to net neu­tral­ity.

And a Demo­cratic takeover of the House in Tues­day’s midterm elec­tions could re­vive ef­forts to en­act net neu­tral­ity into fed­eral law, though Trump would likely veto any such at­tempts.

“Net neu­tral­ity is only the fifth round of a 12-round box­ing match,”Wed­bush Se­cu­ri­ties Man­ag­ing Di­rec­tor Dan Ives said.

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