The Post Net Neutrality Era
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.