The Post Net Neu­tral­ity Era

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With the short re­nais­sance time of net neu­tral­ity now over, it is time to face up to what we have done to our­selves.

In De­cem­ber, the Fed­eral Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Com­mis­sion elim­i­nated the reg­u­la­tory con­cept known as net neu­tral­ity in the United States. That is go­ing to mean ma­jor change – not just for ac­cess on the In­ter­net but also for how In­ter­net ser­vices are go­ing to shape our lives.

What Net Neu­tral­ity Was

Al­though it just ex­pired, in De­cem­ber, net neu­tral­ity was some­thing just as­sumed to be part of life, at least for most peo­ple us­ing the In­ter­net. Few re­al­ized what the stakes were in the mat­ter.

The con­cept of net neu­tral­ity was sim­ple, at its core. It meant that all In­ter­net-based ser­vices, re­gard­less of con­tent or who pro­vided that con­tent, had to be pro­vided on a level play­ing field. Il­le­gal ser­vices, such as on­line gam­bling in re­gions where pro­hib­ited, were al­ways go­ing to be blocked. Other than that, ev­ery­thing would be avail­able to all, re­gard­less of con­tent or source.

The le­gal jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for this was that In­ter­net ser­vice providers, or ISPS, were to be treated very much like util­i­ties. Al­though there are cor­rupt in­flu­ences ev­ery­where, the idea was to treat In­ter­net ser­vice like wa­ter or elec­tric­ity to be pro­vided to a home, busi­ness, school or gov­ern­ment en­tity. The com­pany in­volved was cer­tainly en­ti­tled to make a profit on what they were pro­vid­ing, but other than that, there were to be no pro­vi­sions putting one type of pro­vi­sion ahead of an­other in pri­or­ity or cost.

To give a sim­ple ex­am­ple, if one wanted to watch Net­flix, the rules were sim­ple: The ISP had to pro­vide ac­cess to what­ever band­width was re­quired to watch Net­flix and un­der the same prices and rules as it would for watch­ing Youtube or movies streamed

di­rectly from the ISP’S own data bank of movies and tele­vi­sion shows. No fa­voritism of any kind was al­lowed, in­clud­ing both the abil­ity to make use of the ser­vice at all and mak­ing it avail­able at the same speeds as the ISP’S own sup­ply of con­tent. There would be no block­ing or throt­tling of band­width, as it is re­ferred to more com­monly, other than when a user had ex­hausted what­ever to­tal band­width they had paid for un­der their ISP agree­ment.

Ar­gu­ments for Elim­i­nat­ing Net Neu­tral­ity

The logic be­hind elim­i­nat­ing net neu­tral­ity was also sim­ple. Al­though it was rarely put in these terms, for the ISPS, their po­si­tion was that they own these ser­vices and should be al­lowed to do what­ever they want with them. If you do not like their of­fer­ings or dis­agree with the terms, you can opt out.

As the fight to pre­serve net neu­tral­ity raged on, the ISPS went on to ar­gue that since they paid for the In­ter­net in­fra­struc­ture of ca­bles, rout­ing sys­tems and ex­ten­sive na­tional telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions net­work, they should have the right to man­age it how­ever they want and that if peo­ple do not like that, they can go else­where for their ser­vice.

That logic falls apart when one re­al­izes that these com­pa­nies were only al­lowed to build the ser­vice and even given the le­gal ease­ments to lay ca­ble within home prop­erty lines on the ba­sis that they would pro­vide ser­vice on a broad, neu­tral ba­sis. It makes even less sense when one re­al­izes that most peo­ple in the United States have at most two ISP ser­vices they might be able to choose from, so they re­ally do not have much choice in the mat­ter. Fur­ther, com­pet­ing ser­vices would also – in these days, at least – not be al­lowed ac­cess to the same ease­ments to do con­struc­tion that the ex­ist­ing com­pa­nies have.

An­other ar­gu­ment the ISPS made was that they could not pos­si­bly fi­nance the ex­pan­sion re­quired to take care of the ex­pand­ing needs of their cus­tomers if net neu­tral­ity re­mained in place. The odd thing is that they had been ex­pand­ing “just fine” with the ex­ist­ing reg­u­la­tions in place and had, in fact, gone on record in share­holder meet­ings to re­as­sure their stock­hold­ers that they would be just fine if net neu­tral­ity re­mained the law of the land. So that ar­gu­ment falls apart too.

What was re­ally at stake here, at least at the pub­lic level, was good old-fash­ioned cor­po­rate greed. Just as Le­land Stan­ford (known more as the wealthy bene­fac­tor who made the pres­ti­gious and highly re­garded Stan­ford Uni­ver­sity pos­si­ble) ma­nip­u­lated his own­er­ship of land grants to con­trol the western U.S. rail­road net­works long ago for his own gain, so, too, the ISPS wanted to ma­nip­u­late their ex­ist­ing In­ter­net in­fra­struc­ture grants for their own gain. Stan­ford, of course, won the ar­gu­ment in his day – and so have the ISPS.

Be­ing able to charge more for ac­cess to a high-band­width de­mand ser­vice like Net­flix al­lows the ISPS to ac­com­plish two goals at once. They can make more money from ei­ther Net­flix (who can choose to ab­sorb the ac­cess cost if it wishes) or the users as a re­sult. They can also pro­vide their own high-band­width en­ter­tain­ment, with­out those cost ad­ders in place, and make even more money be­sides. Since they con­trol ev­ery­thing from in-sys­tem pro­mo­tions and ad­ver­tis­ing (which they can make avail­able to them­selves at no real added cost) to band­width al­lo­ca­tion, they can eas­ily ma­nip­u­late the sit­u­a­tion in their own fa­vor. All of this is ac­com­plished on the backs – or via the pock­et­books – of the end users of the ser­vice.

What to Ex­pect Pric­ing and Ac­cess Ma­nip­u­la­tion

With net neu­tral­ity gone, it is un­likely that we will see ma­jor price in­creases for ac­cess to things like Youtube or Net­flix on most ser­vices. That would be too bla­tant. It would also play so com­pletely into the hands of those who had been ar­gu­ing for net neu­tral­ity that the ISPS, in­clud­ing ser­vices like Net­flix and oth­ers, would likely seek im­me­di­ate le­gal re­lief to force the is­sue, should it hap­pen.

What we can ex­pect is some­thing like a bat­tle that many had not paid at­ten­tion to in a dif­fer­ent front. E-com­merce gi­ant Ama­zon, who also has its own stream­ing ser­vices un­der the brand name Fire TV, had ap­par­ently made the de­ci­sion that it would not carry cer­tain Google de­vices for sale via its ser­vice. These in­clude the Google Chrome­cast de­vice, which al­lows stream­ing from de­vices like lap­tops and An­droid­pow­ered smart­phones to tele­vi­sion mon­i­tors, and Google’s Home in­ter­ac­tive speaker prod­ucts.

Google’s Home and, to a lesser ex­tent, its Chrome­cast prod­uct are com­peti­tors to Ama­zon’s wildly pop­u­lar Echo prod­uct line fea­tur­ing in­ter­ac­tive ac­cess with the com­puter voice of Alexa. Echo Show, a newer prod­uct from Ama­zon, even of­fers the abil­ity to watch videos on the de­vice. With Ama­zon block­ing sales of Google’s com­pet­i­tive prod­ucts, par­tic­u­larly in the Home line, Ama­zon’s mar­ket share as a seller of elec­tronic prod­ucts could ef­fec­tively stall sales of Google’s big new in­ter­ac­tive voice prod­ucts mar­ket and fu­ture prod­ucts driven by ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence. Those lat­ter prod­ucts were dis­cussed in con­sid­er­able

de­tail at the re­cent 2018 Con­sumer Elec­tron­ics Show.

In this par­tic­u­lar bat­tle, Google has a very pop­u­lar ser­vice of its own, Youtube, which it al­legedly re­con­fig­ured so it would not play or dis­play on Ama­zon’s Fire TV stream­ing ser­vices or its Echo de­vices. While this is not likely to put a ma­jor damper on sales of Ama­zon’s al­ready-high-sell­ing Echo de­vices, it could fur­ther stall Fire TV a bit and could have a longer-term im­pact.

Since, in the end, Google needs Ama­zon for its own ends to be met on sev­eral grounds and Ama­zon, for now, at least, does not want to up­set its cus­tomers who want ac­cess to Youtube, this will likely get set­tled.

In this case, Google, as a ser­vice provider for Youtube, did some­thing that most ser­vices like Net­flix would not think of do­ing. Faced with Ama­zon ef­fec­tively “throt­tling” sales of some of its prod­ucts, Google with­drew a dif­fer­ent and highly val­ued prod­uct from the Ama­zon Echo dis­tri­bu­tion channel. It would be like Net­flix, faced with higher prices de­manded by Com­cast for its ser­vice, to make the de­ci­sion to not of­fer Net­flix to Com­cast sub­scribers. Sim­ply be­cause of Com­cast’s ma­jor mar­ket share and con­trol, Net­flix could not af­ford this.

What one can ex­pect in­stead are cer­tain ser­vices be­ing blocked and small skir­mishes like this hap­pen­ing with other types of prod­ucts. One likely sce­nario is for the ISPS to very qui­etly pro­vide higher-qual­ity stream­ing and pro­mo­tion of their own ser­vices and put Net­flix at a slight dis­ad­van­tage in band­width, all with­out say­ing any­thing about what they are do­ing. It will be dis­cov­ered even­tu­ally, but it will likely start sooner, like a trial bal­loon, fol­lowed later by ac­tual price in­creases once it is es­tab­lished that net neu­tral­ity is go­ing to stay dead and buried.

An­other type of move that could hap­pen is ei­ther throt­tling or re­quir­ing higher ac­cess charges for in­creas­ingly pop­u­lar ser­vices such as Mi­crosoft’s Skype VOIP and Video Con­fer­enc­ing. With this now be­ing free for most peo­ple, ma­nip­u­lat­ing such ac­cess would be a tricky propo­si­tion. But if Com­cast or AT&T were to ei­ther buy or de­velop their own com­pet­ing ser­vices, one could eas­ily see Skype be­ing cut back in band­width ac­cess so it be­gins to be seen as less re­li­able or of lower qual­ity.

It is im­por­tant to note that while no an­nounce­ments re­lated to any­thing like this have been made yet, it is per­fectly log­i­cal to as­sume that such things might be part of our col­lec­tive fu­ture. With AT&T al­ready in the voice telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions busi­ness, that it might con­sider such a move, per­haps by bundling a new dig­i­tal VOIP and video con­fer­enc­ing ser­vice into its ISP con­tracts, would be very log­i­cal.

As for the big­ger moves – like charg­ing more for Net­flix or stream­ing ser­vices from Ama­zon and Ap­ple – that will likely hap­pen later rather than im­me­di­ately. It is far more likely that those is­sues will also be re­solved peace­fully, via con­tract ne­go­ti­a­tions be­hind the scenes that make both sides richer while we cus­tomers suf­fer.

Ma­nip­u­la­tion of Con­tent

An­other change, this time ex­pected by some far sooner than the app or ser­vice block­ing dis­cussed above, is the abil­ity of ISPS to cus­tom-tai­lor ev­ery­thing from ad­ver­tis­ing to news ser­vices and more.

That may at first seem be­nign, but con­sider how Face­book it­self ac­knowl­edged that it al­lowed a siz­able per­cent­age of Rus­sian-driven news items into its stream­ing ad­ver­tis­ing dur­ing the 2016 Pres­i­den­tial elec­tion. It claims it did not know it at the time. It may also be that Face­book had lit­tle knowl­edge of how dis­torted the con­tent was that was be­ing prop­a­gated on­line.

In the case of Face­book, what that com­pany al­lowed to get to its cus­tomer base was pro­pa­ganda, pure and sim­ple. In the case of the ISPS, the same thing could hap­pen as early as this year, by far more de­lib­er­ate acts, es­pe­cially con­sid­er­ing the stakes in the up­com­ing 2018 U.S. mid-term elec­tions.

One way the ISPS could ma­nip­u­late this is by pro­mot­ing cer­tain news ser­vices that sup­port their own po­lit­i­cal per­spec­tives more than oth­ers that might chal­lenge them. That could be ac­com­plished by man­ag­ing ac­cess to spe­cific web­sites, just like ac­cess to Net­flix. It could also be via pro­mot­ing par­tic­u­lar ser­vices over oth­ers. And, fi­nally, it could be by pro­vid­ing their own cus­tom news ser­vices “for free” (such as what Mi­crosoft, Ap­ple and Google all do with their own net­worked ecosys­tems) but at the cost of man­ag­ing what in­for­ma­tion users are exposed to.

The “Other” Net Neu­tral­i­ties: Smart­phone Ecosys­tems and Dom­i­nant Apps

While the ar­gu­ment about net neu­tral­ity is cur­rently dom­i­nated by dis­cus­sions about the ma­jor ISPS, there is an­other sim­i­lar kind of ecosys­tem that de­serves far more dis­cus­sion in the same con­text. That in­volves smart­phone op­er­at­ing sys­tems as well as one spe­cific dom­i­nant ap­pli­ca­tion on them: Face­book.

Smart­phones have un­der­stand­ably be­come very

pop­u­lar glob­ally. They now dom­i­nate ac­cess to the In­ter­net for many peo­ple, so much so that, for many, a ma­jor part – if not the ma­jor­ity – of users’ ac­cess is via smart­phones. Be­cause of that, their con­trol over their own ecosys­tem rep­re­sents an­other po­ten­tial bat­tle­ground for net neu­tral­ity dis­cus­sions. Smart­phone com­pa­nies, like the ISPS, con­trol which ap­pli­ca­tions are al­lowed to op­er­ate on their de­vices and un­der what ac­cess sce­nar­ios. They have also, though more so in their mar­ket growth years than at present, ac­tively blocked ser­vices that they them­selves con­sider to be “core apps” of the ecosys­tem. Yet they do not get the same scru­tiny in do­ing so that the ISPS get.

The rea­son why is that most cus­tomers think of the op­er­at­ing sys­tem of a de­vice dif­fer­ently than they do of ISPS. They tech­ni­cally work dif­fer­ently, of course, but the con­trol as­pects of the so­lu­tions are the same.

It goes be­yond that when one gets to spe­cific fea­tures or ser­vices, how­ever, with smart­phones al­ready con­trol­ling more of our in­for­ma­tion and ser­vice ac­cess in a way that should be more se­ri­ously con­sid­ered than it is.

In the case of Google, its search ser­vice, built into ev­ery de­vice that makes use of it, now in­cludes spe­cial fil­ter­ing to rank what the com­pany sees as more valid news sources far higher than those it sees as pos­si­ble sup­pli­ers of “fake news.” While it’s shock­ing to some to learn this, it gets even worse when one re­al­izes that Google has put to­gether a hu­man team to help rank those ser­vices. If this were in­deed truly neu­tral ac­cess to such ser­vices, there would be no weighted rank­ing for them.

Even worse, with Google – and likely Ap­ple, though less in­for­ma­tion is pro­vided about its moves – ev­ery move you make on its de­vices is tracked by the com­pany and used to help di­rect in­for­ma­tion to you. If you do a search once for a spe­cific com­pany, you may sud­denly find Google’s “free” news ser­vice feed­ing you ar­ti­cles about that com­pany a lot more than in the past. Search for a spe­cific celebrity one time and you may be stuck read­ing about them for the in­def­i­nite fu­ture. Google will even use your searches to in­form what it presents to you on its Youtube ser­vice, which once again re­in­forces what you had al­ready been look­ing at any­way.

An im­por­tant sub­sidiary ecosys­tem that also needs to be men­tioned is that of Face­book, a ser­vice that brings in users like no other. Ac­cord­ing to Zepho­ria Dig­i­tal Mar­ket­ing, in a re­port dated Jan­uary 2018, some of the more sig­nif­i­cant Face­book statis­tics in­clude the fol­low­ing:

• 2.07 bil­lion monthly active users world­wide as of Q3 2017 – that’s a 16% in­crease from the pre­vi­ous year

• 1.15 bil­lion mo­bile daily active users – that rep­re­sents an even big­ger jump than the pre­vi­ous year, at 23%

• 20 min­utes of time are spent on Face­book for each visit. In a par­al­lel statis­tic, it was es­ti­mated in an­other re­port – go­ing back to 2016 – that the av­er­age user on Face­book spends 50 min­utes a day on the ser­vice. For its prime 25to 34-year-old age demographic, a group that rep­re­sented 29.7% of its users back in a 2012 re­port, that num­ber is likely higher.

With such large num­bers and con­sid­er­ing that Face­book con­trols ac­cess to its ser­vice as rig­or­ously as any ISP, Face­book has in­cred­i­ble power to ma­nip­u­late its users. It built such a mam­moth user base and ad­dic­tion to it by de­lib­er­ate acts, find­ing more ways ev­ery month, ev­ery year to en­cour­age peo­ple to want to be a part of the ser­vice and stay con­nected with it.

At a re­cent talk at the Stan­ford Grad­u­ate School of Busi­ness, one of Face­book’s early ex­ec­u­tives, Chamath

Pal­i­hapi­tiya, who be­came part of the com­pany in 2007 as its VP of user growth, de­cried what he and oth­ers have cre­ated. “I think we have cre­ated tools that are rip­ping apart the so­cial fab­ric of how so­ci­ety works,” he said, mak­ing the point that this was about far more than just Face­book, though he, of course, knows the truth of the in­ner work­ings of Face­book bet­ter than most. He went on to say that “the short-term, dopamine-driven feed­back loops we’ve cre­ated are de­stroy­ing how so­ci­ety works.” That was damn­ing enough, point­ing out how the de­vel­op­ers of the ap­pli­ca­tions and ecosys­tems of to­day’s smart­phones are con­sciously play­ing with the psy­chol­ogy of their users to get them more and more ad­dicted. But then Pal­i­hapi­tiya went on to speak about the in­cred­i­ble power of in­for­ma­tion ma­nip­u­la­tion that such ecosys­tems pro­vide. With ad­ver­tis­ing-driven mes­sages and other data plugged in both by fel­low users and by Face­book it­self, he said, “there is ‘no civil dis­course, no co­op­er­a­tion.’” Mis­in­for­ma­tion and mis­truth are spread­ing rapidly on these ser­vices. He also re­minded peo­ple, de­spite the pile of money spent by Rus­sian groups to spread false news dur­ing the run-up to the 2016 elec­tion: “It’s not [just] an Amer­i­can prob­lem – this is not about Rus­sian ads. This is a global prob­lem.”

Pal­i­hapi­tiya and oth­ers who know the in­dus­try well have gone so far as to block their own chil­dren from us­ing smart­phones. Bill Gates re­port­edly does the same with his own chil­dren, and oth­ers have said that even Steve Jobs, who is cer­tainly one of the dom­i­nant pow­ers who grew the use of such de­vices to the num­bers they are at now, also sup­pos­edly kept the de­vices away from his kids.

For Mark Zucker­berg, Face­book’s CEO, the op­po­site is hap­pen­ing now. His team re­cently re­leased a new prod­uct tar­geted di­rectly at chil­dren: Face­book for Kids. The goal is both to find a way to stave off the slowly slid­ing per­cent­ages of teenagers who use Face­book as well as to get them re­con­nected to the ser­vice.

Zucker­berg also claims to be do­ing some­thing about the glut of pro­pa­ganda and in­for­ma­tion dis­tor­tion within Face­book, but cut­ting it back en­tirely is only likely go­ing to hap­pen by tak­ing dra­co­nian mea­sures, which will also re­move much of the more ac­cu­rate sources.

In all cases, the more im­por­tant con­cern is to re­al­ize that, just as with the case of the hand­ful of ISPS who con­trol what en­ter­tain­ment and ser­vices reach one’s home tele­vi­sion and com­put­ers, for smart­phones there are only two op­er­at­ing sys­tems, IOS from Ap­ple and An­droid from Google, which con­trol their ac­cess. Within both ser­vices there are ap­pli­ca­tions, like Face­book, that so dom­i­nate us­age rates that they also ef­fec­tively con­trol and throt­tle ac­cess to in­for­ma­tion, even from your friends in the ser­vices but also from out­side ser­vices.

The Fu­ture of Net Neu­tral­ity

With so many dif­fer­ent ways that ac­cess to the In­ter­net and in­for­ma­tion is con­trolled for the world these days, the bat­tle over net neu­tral­ity re­mains one of the most im­por­tant ones for Amer­i­cans – and those re­sid­ing else­where – to mon­i­tor care­fully and con­sider re­gard­ing their own ac­tions.

In the case of smart­phones and their ad­dic­tive ap­pli­ca­tions, per­haps you should con­sider do­ing two things to con­trol your own sit­u­a­tion: Keep your phone away from you and turned off as much as pos­si­ble and delete the Face­book ap­pli­ca­tion from it.

For those who have al­ready tried it, elim­i­nat­ing Face­book and its sub­sidiary ap­pli­ca­tion, Mes­sen­ger, from phones, has a faster “re­hab” cy­cle than ex­pected. Many re­port feel­ing less stressed about the need­less de­mand to keep check­ing their friends’ sta­tus all day long.

In both cases, keep­ing your phone away from your face has one other crit­i­cal ad­van­tage: It gives you more time to think in­de­pen­dently, with­out all that chat­ter slam­ming into your brain and the loss of cre­ative time that your phone steals from you ev­ery day, and you won't have to worry so much about get­ting a brain tu­mor from the mi­crowave ra­di­a­tion that your phone is blast­ing you with.

Image: Matt Brown, CC

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