Net Neutrality, Surveillance, Privacy and the World We Live In.

There is a lot of conversation in main stream media about these three topics and a lot of noise surrounding them all. This is how I see it.

The idea of Net Neutrality is one that says all internet traffic should be treated equally and that regardless of bandwidth usage or content, that data should be delivered to the customer without bias. In principal, this is a concept that is widely supported by people living in the United States.

The counter point to this former regulation by the FCC, as presented by the Internet Service Providers (ISPs), is that there are a select few content providers (Netflix, Google, Hulu, Online Gaming, etc.) that actually take up more than 50% of the available bandwidth. So, since these services are more demanding on the network, and therefore more expensive for the ISPs, they need to pay more to have their content delivered. In a sense, by charging more for these services, it will be more fair to everyone else on the internet.

The ISPs have lobbied for years for two pieces of legislation to be removed in order to “improve the customer experience.” Both efforts are predicated on the idea that in order for ISPs to improve their network, they need to have additional income streams. In June 2018, the FCC sided with the ISPs and repealed Net Neutrality, giving way for the ISPs to charge the content providers more to deliver their content when they are a certain size or popularity.

In plain English this means that Spectrum, for example, can contact Netflix, or the like, and demand, “if you want your content to continue being delivered at full customer bandwidth, then you now need to pay us a premium fee.” This, in fact, is not a new issue and companies like Google, Spotify and Riot Games have already complained because their service is slower than it should be. Google is even trying to put in their own fiber to combat this, mostly unsuccessfully.

The second piece of legislation that was repealed in 2018 is the classification of broadband suppliers as Title II, Common Carriers. This former classification regulated broadband suppliers in the same way as the telephone companies and the United States Postal Service. The premise of the law is that if you, the customer, want to talk on the phone or mail a letter, you have no choice but to use the government approved monopoly. It also acknowledges that these companies hold a privileged position in society and, as such, they are subject to certain rules. The phone companies are required by law to keep all user information private. (Though there has been quite a few questions whether this is upheld under the Patriot Act.) Furthermore, the USPS must deliver mail regardless of who sent it, what it is and who the intended recipient is, without bias. They cannot hang a sign on their office door saying, “We reserve the right to refuse service.”

The ISPs argued the old designation was stifling investment in newer and faster networks. However, when the issue of Title II came up in earnings calls with investors, every ISP backed away from their previous statements on the topic. Regardless of their lobbying efforts, the law dictates that public companies have an obligation to be truthful when informing their investors on plans and the company state of affairs.

Once again, in plain English, the reclassification of the Title II, Common Carrier designation means that your broadband provider, (At&t, Verizon, Spectrum, Cox) is now allowed to collect and sell your data. Every website you visit, every smart device connection, every interaction and not to mention your name and address. They can build profiles of their customers and sell the data to third parties in exchange for additional revenue streams.

This is the equivalent of allowing the phone company to listen in on your calls in order to sell the information to advertisers or let the USPS open your mail, read it and then decide how fast to deliver it, or if they will deliver it at all. I am not okay with that.

If ISPs truthfully need additional revenue streams to improve their networks, rather than selling our data and holding the content providers hostage, why not do what any other business would and raise prices? That is the exceedingly simple option, however doing this would open up their monopolies for competition. Raising rates so they reflect the true cost of doing business would mean new, innovative companies suddenly could compete with the incumbent ISPs.

It is clear that some of the most exciting and transformative companies in the world are based on a variation of user data collection model. Google allows you to find whatever you want on the internet, in exchange for your data. Facebook connects you with friends around the world, for no monetary cost, but rather for your data. Please don’t misunderstand, I want these companies to behave better too, the key difference is they are by no means monopolies or mandatory. Signing on to Google and Facebook is a choice you get to make.

The ISPs in the United States, on the other hand, have an approved monopoly over “the last mile” of internet connectivity. In other words, connecting your home or office to the Internet. This of course was not an accident. Rather, the cable companies collectively decided who would provide service to which areas, and strategically divided up the territories. When broadband was being built out for the “good of the nation,” there were also government subsidies that allowed streets to be dug up and cable to be laid. Today, 45% of all U.S. households have only one choice for broadband access which is considered to be 25MBPS and above. Less than 7% have more than 2 choices. So, as of today, if you want broadband service you must use the incumbent networks.

The list is long but to give you an idea of what the broadband suppliers collect, I started a list:

IP addresses, domains & URLS of the pages you visit, time you spend on each site, sequence of pages, links you follow, how often you open an application, how long you spend using the app, your operating system, types of devices in your home (nest, alexa, smart tvs, laptops etc.), data transmission rates, billing information, whereabouts of your wireless device, GPS info, locations you visit, blue tooth connections, phone type, tv viewing data, phone calls, text messages, data gathered through cookies, credit score, aggregated data purchased from 3rd parties and all information, including passwords, on non-secure websites (HTTP vs HTTPS).

The concept of who is logging our data and for what purpose is a rabbit hole. At the most basic level, I believe that the right to privacy is akin to a constitutional right, as alluded to in the 4th amendment. We have private conversations in business, we have private conversations in the legal community and we have private conversations in our household. Perhaps most importantly, we are allowed to vote in private. Without private ballots the foundation of the democracy that we live in collapses. By extrapolation, why should I be forced to volunteer the contents of conversation to a company just because they happen to have built the road I am driving on? Today, when you access the internet, the default is no privacy.

The idea that danger can be dispelled by limiting privacy to business, voting, personal conversations or internet access is one that doesn’t hold much water. Most people live their lives inside the framework of the law. A small degree of additional safety or convenience does not justify uninhibited access to all of our data. It might surprise you, but the ISPs are the sleeping giants. They are the gatekeepers with the ability to watch our most intimate moments and record them. Please refer back to the list above.

The world is a complicated place. It has no simple solutions. I believe, and my company believes, that privacy should be a choice. My father said that having options is the single most valuable thing in life and I agree. We can accomplish the goal of an open, fair, uncensored internet in a variety of ways. More broadband suppliers and fewer acquisitions by ISPs of content and advertising networks is a good start. (If you don’t know, search what companies AT&T, Verizon, Spectrum/Charter, and Cox own).

Datacamo makes an open, private, fast internet possible right now.

Kevin Krieser


Privacy By Default