CEDAR FALLS — Depending on who you ask, the free and open structure of the Internet may be on the verge of a massive transformation.
It’s been nearly a month since a federal court struck down the Federal Communications Commission’s net neutrality rules, a set of principles that prohibited Internet service providers from tampering with the traffic flowing over their networks.
Net neutrality advocates are waiting for the next shoe to drop, while Internet service providers in Iowa and across the country continue to insist it won’t.
“We’re doing what we did yesterday,” said Tom Larsen, the group vice president of legal affairs for Mediacom. “We’re not changing any business practices.”
Not everyone is convinced.
“You’ve got to operate on the assumption that everyone in this is going to maximize profit every way they can, and they’re going to game the system every way they can,” said University of Iowa professor and former Federal Communications Commission member Nicholas Johnson. “That’s the free market. That’s what’s out there. (Internet service providers) are going to do what they can to cut costs and increase revenues.”
An adjunct faculty member at the University of Iowa’s College of Law, Johnson served seven years as a commissioner with the FCC from 1966 to 1973. He has written several books and was named one of the most influential people in American legal history by “The Yale Biographical Dictionary of American Law” in 2009.
Johnson’s mindset is shared by many net neutrality advocates across the country. The staunchest of those advocates worry that the decision made by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia in January will lead to a costlier and more occluded Internet than we have come to know.
A NEUTRAL INTERNET
Though it isn’t classified as such, the Internet in its current form resembles a telephone network: Information travels smoothly over the highway from point A to point B, free of impediment or censure by the owners of the physical networks — the Internet service providers (ISPs).
Until now, that kind of open structure online has been mostly based on the FCC’s authority to enforce net neutrality rules. Some of the larger ISPs like Comcast and Verizon have been testing the limits of those rules for years.
In 2007, the FCC discovered that Comcast was deliberately slowing down and in some cases blocking Internet traffic for some of its clients who were using BitTorrent transfers, a popular method for sharing videos and music online. The FCC told Comcast to stop, but in 2010 the appeals court ruled in the company’s favor, saying the FCC had overstepped its regulatory bounds.
This latest court decision — Verizon v. FCC — essentially finishes what that first one began. Now that the net neutrality rules are gone, advocates fear that traffic tampering will become commonplace, that certain consumers and content providers will become the targets of ISPs looking to advance their business interests.
“The impact on Iowans is they may end up paying more for the (Internet) services that they get if there’s no longer any restraint on the carriers,” Johnson said. “You may not be able to get services that you now get. You may have degraded services in some places you go.”
Providers like Liberty Media are already considering making certain content providers like Netflix pay for the amount of network capacity they take up. Without net neutrality, the fear is that ISPs could speed up or slow down Internet access for a company depending on whether or not they opt to pay.
“It would be just like protection money in a high-crime area of town,” Johnson said.
It hasn’t happened yet, but net neutrality advocates fear the new landscape could lead to price wars and higher costs that will be passed on to consumers, resulting in an Internet that resembles a cable service more than a telephone service.
Under such a model, a customer who pays a base amount for basic Internet access would then choose between various content packages. For example, a $20 package could buy a month’s worth of access to Netflix, YouTube and Hulu, and so on.
“Larger ISPs would like to keep a lock on their own pipes,” said Amy Kuhlers, state program manager for Connect Iowa, an organization that promotes broadband proliferation across the state. “They pay for them, they think they should have more control over what goes over them.”
Iowa’s Internet service providers are adamant that all those fears are unfounded.
Besides Texas, Iowa has more ISPs than any other state, according to Kuhlers. Windstream, CenturyLink, and Frontier have the largest presence in the state, followed closely by Mediacom, along with a host of independent and municipal providers.
Do these companies want to seize more control over the content going over their networks? Should consumers be worried? Their answer, for now at least, is “no.”
“I think it would be foolish for any company to slow traffic down,” said Larsen, Mediacom’s vice president of legal affairs. “The Internet business has grown because people have had the freedom to go where they want unhindered.”
David Slinker, a spokesperson for CenturyLink, echoed Larsen.
“Our network is built on the idea that customers should be able to access the Internet whenever and however they choose,” Slinker said. “We strongly support the open Internet.”
Betty Zeman is the marketing manager for Cedar Falls Utilities, one of 29 municipal ISPs in the state.
“We don’t discriminate between different types of Internet traffic and we don’t plan on changing that,” she said. “It would not be in our benefit to do that, and we think it would be a negative consequence for consumers.”
Kuhlers thinks Internet customers should remain watchful, but she doesn’t expect any major changes, not within the next few months at least.
“Consumers are pretty influential,” she said. “I don’t know if a company is going to want to impose something that will infuriate the vast number of their customers.”
Lyombe Eko is an associate professor in the University of Iowa’s journalism program who teaches about net neutrality in his media law course.
“I do not see any drastic doomsday scenario for the Internet,” Eko said. “The broadband companies did not impose any drastic changes on the Internet after their victory in 2010. I doubt that they will change the Internet at this time.”
The FCC may have lost the battle, but the fight over net neutrality is far from over.
To the chagrin of Verizon, the company that brought this most recent lawsuit, the appeals court upheld the FCC’s authority to regulate ISPs, albeit not under the umbrella of current policy. If it wants to, the FCC can appeal, or reclassify ISPs as “telecommunications services” — an area over which the commission has greater regulatory power — and redraft the net neutrality rules accordingly.
In the first hint of movement along these lines, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said last week he is interested in enforcing net neutrality standards on a case-by-case basis as abuses occur.
Based on his experience as a commissioner on the FCC, Johnson remains skeptical.
“There’s a lot of political pressure on the FCC not to do anything,” he said. “The Internet carriers don’t want net neutrality, the cable industry doesn’t want it. Those are very powerful forces.”
Meanwhile, Republicans in Congress are celebrating the dismantling of net neutrality as a victory, and politicians on both sides of the aisle continue to get campaign contributions from ISPs.
According to information available on Verizon’s own website, the company made approximately $1.5 million in financial contributions to individual candidates, political action committees and other party organizations nationwide between January and June of 2013 alone. A recent study by nonprofit liberal advocacy group Common Cause claims that Verizon has made more than $53 million in political contributions since 2010.
“Ultimately (legislators) have to go around to the very industries they’re writing legislation about and beg them for money,” Johnson said. “You ask someone for money and they give you money, you can’t give them a poke in the eye with a sharp stick.”
None of the big ISPs have made any sudden moves toward tighter controls on their networks, and opinion remains divided about what this most recent court decision means for the future of a neutral Internet.
“I believe that ‘net-neutrality’ has become an ideological instrument for both its proponents and opponents,” Eko said. “The point is that it can be a two-edged sword. … Ultimately, the FCC and broadband providers need to find a suitable middle ground between net neutrality and traffic management.”
Johnson’s outlook is a little bleaker. We live in a free market, he says, and in a free market, there is little middling when it comes to profits.
“Internet service providers want to have the ability to charge some suppliers of content more than others, to charge some consumers more than others, to be able direct to you to a website that is a subsidiary of theirs. They want to have the possibility to do that,” Johnson said. “That’s what this fight is about.”
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