Part 2 of 2018 And Beyond: Net Neutrality

In my last post, I introduced the idea that the convergence of technology, regulation, and data was the most important and persistent theme of 2018.

The first storyline within that theme was the arrival of GDPR and the promise that people would gain back ownership of their personal data from the corporations that use it to profit. GDPR brought the most stringent data privacy laws and requirements yet enacted for the protection of personal data.

The timing of GDPR seamed perfect when looking back at 2018’s perpetual headlines of security breaches, abuses of power, and data practice controversies. This year, optimists are eager to see how the tech industry and legislators respond to an ever growing movement pushing consumer data rights forward.

The next storyline that unfolded throughout 2018 painted a bleaker picture of how government and legislation might impact technology.

In 2018, the battle for net neutrality heated up and the fight is continuing feverishly into 2019.

First, we need to understand exactly what net neutrality is. TheStreet defines it simply as:

“the principle that an internet service provider (ISP) has to provide access to all sites, content and applications at the same speed, under the same conditions without blocking or preferencing any content. Under net neutrality whether you connect to Netflix, Hulu, TheStreet or a friend’s random blog, your ISP has to treat them all the same.”

This is important because without net neutrality individual ISPs can provide higher connection speeds to certain websites, throttle access to others, block access to certain content entirely, or charge users additional fees for specific content or access to websites that take up more bandwidth (or for any other reason).

The end result is that ISPs can have a massive amount of control on what content is delivered and consumed by the public. The street continues by exploring the political consequences: “Then, of course, there’s politics. An ISP which supports one candidate in an election could slow down or block access to the opposing party’s websites. Or, without taking sides, it could charge for access to its subscribers.”

We know what net neutrality is, now what is the issue?

A series of events this past year evokes uncertainty and a potentially dangerous future for net neutrality.

A year ago this month, the Republican ran FCC voted to repeal the net neutrality regulations passed by the FCC under the Obama administration that were designed to ensure all traffic on the internet was treated equally.

January 1st marked the last day the repeal of the rules could have been reversed by Congress. Unfortunately, the House failed to gather enough votes, making a reversal of the repeal impossible.

While this is the case, the battle isn’t over. New legislation can (and will) be presented, and if passed will ensure a future with net neutrality.

Where are we now?

On January 2nd Ajit Pai, the FCC Commissioner, came out with an official statement essentially applauding the failure of Congress to reinstate the rules, while also claiming the failure as a victory for the public.

In his statement, Pai claimed broadband speed improvements, new fiber deployments, and developing technologies as victories of the FCC’s net neutrality repeal. Despite Pai’s claims, all of these developments would have happened regardless of net neutrality’s current status.

Proponents of net neutrality aren’t buying into Pai’s statements at all. Per John Brodkin of Ars: “As usual, Ajit Pai is full of it,” Deputy Director Evan Greer of advocacy group Fight for the Future told Ars. He continues by stating:

“His claim that broadband speeds are up is the tech policy equivalent of ‘it’s snowing outside, therefore climate change is a hoax.’”

Jon Brodkin of Ars also notes the Commissioner’s remarkable ability to leave out the negative storylines actually impacted by net neutrality when he writes: “Pai didn’t mention a recent case in which CenturyLink temporarily blocked its customers’ Internet access in order to show an ad or a recent research report accusing Sprint of throttling Skype (which Sprint denies).”

Moving Forward

Regardless of Pai’s statements made on the 2nd, the FCC is receiving strong pushback from every direction.

For the second year in a row, Ajit Pai has canceled his speaking engagement at CES. Last year Pai pulled out of his CES appearance due to public backlash, and this time around it is due to the Government’s partial shut down limiting the FCC’s capabilities.

Supporters of net neutrality have turned to the courts as the battle carries into 2019. Marguerite Reardon explains how attorneys general from dozens of states, activist groups, and tech companies like Mozilla, have all filed suit in accusation of the FCC arbitrarily rolling back the rules and overstepping its authority to ban states from passing their own protections.

This is all great, but the final decision on net neutrality could end up in the hands of the Supreme Court and newly appointed Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who’s on record questioning the FCC’s authority to adopt the original net neutrality protections.

All we know for certain is that 2019 will be a year of major debate and action for net neutrality rules that will have a massive impact on the country. As the story currently unfolds, all eyes are on February 1st when oral arguments at the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit are scheduled to occur.

I’ll continue to explore how the collision of tech, data, and legislation was the biggest theme of 2018, as well as the positive and negative outcomes we can expect in 2019 later this week as we do a deeper dive into the technology being impacted.

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