The Neutral Zone: The Future of Net Neutrality
The Internet (at least in the US) is at a crossroads as the FCC is considering rolling back net neutrality regulations. If net neutrality is abolished, the Internet could shift from an essential service that all consumers can access to a product that can be packaged and sold to the highest bidders. Show Notes
Speaker 1: Thank you for calling Generic Internet. How can I upsell you today?
Leroy Jenkins: Hi there. I’d like to get home internet.
Speaker 1: Which internet package would you like: Unlimited Freedom or Infinite Elite?
Leroy Jenkins: Whatever gets me the entire internet.
Speaker 1: How adorable of you. That hasn’t been possible since net neutrality regulations were lifted back in 2017.
Leroy Jenkins: What?
Speaker 1: How about the Unlimited Freedom package?
Leroy Jenkins: What’s that?
Speaker 1: For $59.95 a month, you get 199 websites including Wikipedia, that’s a whole encyclopedia inside the internet.
Leroy Jenkins: I know what Wikipedia is.
Speaker 1: Facebook ads and kids plus the Craigslist ads where people leave free stuff [crosstalk 00:00:37].
Leroy Jenkins: Craigslist … That’s it?
Speaker 1: Oh no, sir. You also get Google Kentucky, your local weather forecast from the previous day and United Airlines’ top 10 [inaudible 00:00:46] videos.
Leroy Jenkins: I do like that, but look, I don’t care what it takes. I want the whole internet.
Speaker 1: Lol, sir. Truly, truly LOL. The internet you want was locked down for its good, but I think you’ll love our Infinite Elite package.
Leroy Jenkins: Fine, sell me on it.
Speaker 1: For just $99.95 a month …
Leroy Jenkins: Wow.
Speaker 1: … Infinite Elites get 596 super premium websites at frightening speed, including Bing …
Leroy Jenkins: [crosstalk 00:01:08].
Speaker 1: … Voodoo.com. The men of Instagram, LinkedIn after hours, Pornhub’s offcore lite.
Leroy Jenkins: It’s offcore?
Speaker 1: And Twitter Jr.
Leroy Jenkins: This is ridiculous. Listen, thanks, but I think I’ll get the internet from somebody else.
Speaker 1: Oh no. You’re just being silly. Based on your calling area, I can assure you, sir, that we’re the only internet service provider around.
Leroy Jenkins: You got to be kidding me.
Speaker 1: We’re not. I’ve already processed your credit card for the Infinite Elite package and pre-billed you for the next 36 months. You’re all set.
Leroy Jenkins: Wait. You have my credit card?
Speaker 1: Of course, sir. Our data brokers are very thorough. Welcome to the Infinite Elite club, Mr. Leroy Jenkins.
Leroy Jenkins: What? Hey.
Veronica B.: So, was that a fictional future phonecall or our soon-to-be-wretched reality? Net neutrality. I’m hearing about it a ton these days. I mean, this is the kind of issue that my mom is now talking to me about and she’s not exactly super tech-literate. I’m sure you’re hearing a ton of the same stuff as well. Pundits are talking about it on the news. It’s everywhere, all over social media. I mean, John Oliver’s even dedicated two whole episodes of his show just to get people to flood the FCC website with comments, because it is just that important. See, if the FCC rolls back net neutrality protections as it’s proposing to do, then that phone call with poor Leroy trying to order internet in the future the way we order cable TV today might not be so farfetched really. I’m Veronica Belmont and welcome to IRL, an original podcast from Mozilla, because online life is real life. So, what’s a simple way to explain net neutrality? Well, it’s the idea that your internet service provider, your ISP, be it Comcast, Verizon or somebody else, shouldn’t be able to pick and choose which service or content you can see or make sites pay to have their content load quickly. Keep it simple, keep it equal, keep it fair, and everyone wins. We fought hard for this to be made official. Two years ago after huge protests, the FCC adopted rules that reclassified the internet like a public utility. Now there’s a new sheriff in Internet Town and his name is Ajit Pai. He was a lawyer for Verizon for a short time and became an FCC commissioner five years ago. In January, President Trump promoted Pai to lead the FCC as its new chair. Within seconds of getting the job or at least so it seemed, Pai said the FCC had made a “mistake” on net neutrality. No surprise, since Pai has always been a fierce opponent of it.
Randall S.: We need to fire up the weed whacker and start removing those rules that are holding back investments, innovation and job creation.
Veronica B.: He’s not a fan of regulations.
Randall S.: Americans are best served I think with a light-touch framework that respects the basic principles of economics. The more heavily you regulate something the less likely you’re going to get more of it.
Veronica B.: The dominant ISPs by and large agree with him.
Randall S.: Am I in favor of net neutrality as it was implement and crafted, I think is a bad idea. I think it’s bad for the industry. I think it’s bad for investment.
Veronica B.: That’s AT&T’s CEO, Randall Stephenson. He thinks these rules are ancient and outdated.
Randall S.: These rules were written to regulate the AT&T telephone monopoly, which our service at that time was a black rotary dial phone, all right?
Veronica B.: Comcast CEO Brian Roberts has said the internet will be just fine without net neutrality. Don’t you worry.
Brian Roberts : The idea that we’re not going to have an open internet is just not realistic. We have an open internet. It’s been incredibly successful.
Veronica B.: A little later in the episode, we’ll hear from someone who agrees with Chairman Pai’s and the ISP’s perspective. She’ll explain why she thinks this particular battle for net neutrality may be well-intentioned but misdirected. Many Americans disagree that net neutrality is a bad policy. A Mozilla study found 76% of us support it regardless of political affiliation. Given our polarized political climate that’s an incredibly telling number.
Male: Net neutrality is fundamental to competition.
Speaker 7: Because it is like the first amendment of the internet.
Male: Just like electricity, just like phone, this is a public resource.
Male: Vetting net neutrality is a big mistake.
Male: You don’t know what you’re doing.
Veronica B.: These are just a smidgen of the thousands of voicemails along with the almost three million comments that have been sent to the FCC in the past couple of months. Worry is that without protection, the internet will become a place divided, a two-tier service that will privilege the rich and the powerful and leave the rest of us fighting over dot-com scraps. So, people are calling and writing in droves. In one example, 800 startup businesses got together and signed a joint letter because this could affect them directly, also maggots. Yes, this issue even affects maggots.
Patrick P.: So, in the back is where we have all of our bugs, all the black soldier fly larvae. Back here, we just have a tray full of, I guess, about one-week old larvae. You can pick them up. They feel kind of interesting in your hand. It’s like rattling around.
Veronica B.: It’s a baby larvae. That’s Patrick Pittaluga. His startup is called Grubbly Farms. It’s a maggot-making facility in Atlanta, Georgia.
Patrick P.: We try to refrain from using the term maggot, but that’s what they are.
Veronica B.: Right, sorry. Grubbly grows larva, not maggots, crushes them into a powder and makes chicken feed.
Patrick P.: I’m going to wash my hands.
Veronica B.: If Patrick’s unusual startup succeeds, they’ll expand to dog food and even food for people. Yay. Like the other 799 companies who signed the letter, Patrick believes that if the web doesn’t stay neutral, he could be destroyed by a richer, bigger competitor.
Patrick P.: As a small company, we believe in having freedom to access information. Being a small company, we obviously don’t have the necessary funds to put ourselves on a priority list if net neutrality were to go away and you were to have fast lanes, slow lanes, whatever.
Veronica B.: Look at it this way. Imagine Amazon started a larva farm too, and they could pay for faster internet speeds, get on an internet fast lane, and advertise to their customers in a way that Patrick or any startup bug business couldn’t. See the problem? Okay, the edible bug-growing business might not be a priority for Amazon at the moment, but did you think Amazon would ever buy a grocery chain until they bought wholefoods? 10 years ago, did you think Google would get into self-driving cars? Whatever the FCC chair or the ISPs say, net neutrality supporters will argue that it’s been baked into the web from the beginning.
Barbara van S. : In fact, that was the whole beauty of the internet that it was just providing an open platform and that the network didn’t need to know what people were doing online.
Veronica B.: Barbara van Schewick wrote the book on the internet. It’s called Internet Architecture and Innovation.
Dominic Girard : And she’s pretty clear at explaining why she isn’t buying what the ISPs are selling.
Veronica B.: Oh hello, Dominic Girard, one of the producers of IRL. I didn’t see you there.
Dominic Girard : Hey, Veronica. Okay, so let’s just get to the heart of this pro, anti-net neutrality and debate. Let’s hit it right where it counts. The way it goes, it’s that network neutrality …
Barbara van S. : Is a problem that can be solved if you have lots of competition among internet service providers. If I don’t like that my internet service provider is blocking Netflix, I can just switch to another internet service provider that does not block Netflix. Then the threat of people switching providers will keep internet service providers on their toes.
Veronica B.: So, that’s a pretty standard argument. We heard variations on this all the time and not just for net neutrality.
Dominic Girard : Right. Let the markets decide. In this case, it’s probably not going to work.
Veronica B.: Why is that?
Dominic Girard : Europe actually tried this in 2009.
Barbara van S. : They got ample blocking and discrimination. Lots of internet service providers were blocking Skype on mobile networks. Others were engaging in content-based blocking. There was a lot of discriminator network management where during certain times of day in the evening, when everybody wanted to use the internet, applications like P2P peer applications or even video applications were being restricted.
Veronica B.: So, how did the whole “I’ll take my business elsewhere” approach work out for them?
Dominic Girard : It did not go well, because the problems that this caused affected network traffic from all sorts of angles. Some services, they didn’t even work anymore, like video games. I know you play video games online, right?
Veronica B.: I do, yes.
Dominic Girard : So, a game maker would push a patch or an update over the web and it would get caught up in the blocking and the throttling so some games might not even work when you’re trying.
Veronica B.: You don’t want to mess with gamers in ping times. It’s not smart.
Dominic Girard : So, ultimately, the EU agreed this plan wasn’t working, so they adopted net neutrality.
Veronica B.: Okay, but hang on. So, we do hear that ISPs, they tend to say that they support net neutrality, at least some of them do. The CEO of Comcast says they don’t block, slow down or discriminate against lawful content.
Dominic Girard : Yeah, and also ISPs, they’re allowed to try to make money. They’re a business and that’s totally fine. It’s true that they’ve said that, but Barbara, she sees past that.
Barbara van S. : In a way, the internet service providers are hiding the ball because when they say, “We love net neutrality,” they mean something different than what the net neutrality proponents mean. They basically want a minimum level of net neutrality protections that would make it harder for them to block or slow down applications. They want to be able to charge websites fee for better access to customers. They want to be able to offer paid fast lanes.
Veronica B.: So, it’s kind of like a fancy nightclub that everyone wants to get into, but if you don’t have the money or you’re not on the guest list or you’re not in a hot little dress …
Dominic Girard : Right, or you don’t have the password.
Barbara van S. : That’s pretty significant because that means the kind of law they want is basically locking in a kind of net neutrality law that’s the equivalent of a Clean Air Act that allows you to pollute the air as much as you want.
Veronica B.: Okay, but you still have a bar. You still have the internet.
Dominic Girard : Sure, sure, but who do you think is getting all the innovations? Who’s getting all the primo business?
Veronica B.: Who’s getting Tiesto to come spin? It’s Club Fast Lane.
Dominic Girard : It’s Club Fast Lane. Jokes aside, that’s really what worries the pro-net neutrality camp.
Barbara van S. : If we allow internet service providers to charge websites to be in a fast lane, that creates an incentive for them to not invest in faster networks. Basically, if you want to get people with money to pay for a better service, the baseline service has to be sufficiently crappy to motivate those with money to pay for the better service. We know this from flying. Economy class needs to be sufficiently unattractive to motivate those with money to pay for business class. So, the internet would become less vibrant, less useful, and less interesting.
Veronica B.: Thank you, Dom. That was great.
Dominic Girard : Anytime.
Veronica B.: This is IRL, an original podcast from Mozilla, because online life is real life. I’m Veronica Belmont. So, ask yourself, “Should America go the way of Europe and allow ISPs to throttle internet speeds and block services?” That European experiment didn’t just suck for teenage gamers by the way. BT Broadband in the UK was accused of throttling the speed of BBC’s iPlayer. So, ISPs were getting in the way of accessing basic information too. It’s like Barbara says, “Make economy class internet a horrible experience so people want to pay for first class,” or quit flying altogether. We’ve talked a lot about fast and slow lane internets, but this debate raises deeper concerns about basic access to services too. Who gets left behind if the internet is no longer equal for all? This is something Jessica Gonzalez thinks about a lot. She’s with freepress.net.
Jessica G.: The people who suffer are regular folks and people who are using the internet to tell their stories in a way they’ve never been able to do so before in particular. I’m thinking communities of color and people who are organizing for justice online and small businesses that have really found a market for their goods and services on the internet.
Veronica B.: I think people kind of get mired down in this idea that net neutrality is a technology issue, but really, I mean, the way you’re describing it, it’s a civil rights issue.
Jessica G.: Absolutely. My mom was actually telling me … She’s like, “This … This feels more profound.” Even in the Vietnam War protests in the ‘60s … I mean, I wasn’t there and I don’t remember, but I’m really just amazed with how people are showing up and putting their money where their mouth is and fighting for their rights.
Veronica B.: Is there a story that really sticks with you from someone that illustrates what people are fighting for in regards to net neutrality?
Jessica G.: We heard from one woman who was formally unhoused. She shared with us that you can’t even find a homeless shelter unless you’re on the internet. We heard from another woman. She’s a blogger. She started blogging as a way to connect with other people because she felt isolated at home with six kids. She wanted to share her legacy and her story with her kids. She’s a Latina and she’s able to earn a living and actually help support her family through this means. When asked, “How would a rollback of net neutrality impact you?” She said, “It would destroy me, because this is my livelihood and I cannot pay to get faster access. It will kill this blog.” That’s why net neutrality is so important because it evens the playing field and gives the platform to these voices in communities that not only have been absent over traditional media, but have actually been demonized in traditional media.
Veronica B.: And politically, of course, there is just a ton going on in the world. People have concerns about a great and many varied topics. Why should net neutrality be someone’s particular call to arms?
Jessica G.: I really feel this. There’s a lot of noise because there’s so many terrible things happening. We’re leaving the Paris Agreement. We’re walking away from our commitment to environmental justice. Terrible acts of racism. But as activists, we understand that we need to be able to reach people. We need to be able to organize. We need to be able to get our message out. Net neutrality means to be an issue that everyone cares about because if we don’t own our stories and we don’t have control over how we organize and the freeness of the internet, then we lose an amazing tool, a critical tool to make change that lasts and to shift culture in a way that perceives and advances justice.
Veronica B.: So, that’s a few reasons why people are freaking out and storming the FFC gates, but for some these concerns don’t pass the smell test.
Roslyn Layton: If we take 1996 as the beginning of the commercial internet, we have had for almost 20 years in the United States an amazing evolution with the internet, with essentially no net neutrality rules in place.
Veronica B.: This is Dr. Rosyln Layton. Her research focuses on tech policy.
Roslyn Layton: Policy based on facts, not on feelings.
Veronica B.: She’s a visiting fellow with the American Enterprise Institute.
Roslyn Layton: The other interesting thing to note is that in our 10 years of growing net neutrality rules around the world, we’re having more concentrated traffic than less. This is the unintended consequence of a rule that basically says, “All traffic has to be treated the same.” It hurts the entrants who actually need differentiation to be able to appeal to an audience. The sad part about this regulation is it has hurt the smallest providers the most. So, for example, 22 small ISPs from rural America, they have not been able to get bank financing because the banks have said, “The FCC can regulate your prices. They can tax your service so we’re not gonna lend you money.” If you are a broadband ISP, you have had to spend a lot of money to get in business. You need to buy spectrum, which costs billions of dollars. You have to secure rights of way for a community. You need to get permissions and licenses to operate. So, this idea that somehow you’re going to build a network, operate this, and then not allow your customers to get access to it and then not allow the content providers to deliver the service is a bit counterintuitive that all the work you’re trying to do in the first place to actually have a broadband network.
Veronica B.: In fact, she says, “Laws are already in place to protect us from any kind of ISP overreach anyway.”
Roslyn Layton: Blocking and throttling, those are actual competition abuses, which we have a federal trade commission and we have a lot of layers of laws to address that. Every single net neutrality concern, the refusal to supply, discriminatory pricing, bundling, all of that is already there in competition law.
Veronica B.: So, Dr. Layton thinks net neutrality supporters are going about this fight the wrong way, but she doesn’t take issue with the intention.
Roslyn Layton: This idea of a free and open internet, I don’t think anybody has any disagreement with. I think the issue here is what is the legal instrument that we use to secure it? There is wide support across party lines to protect the internet. Perhaps one of the most successful things about the net neutrality movement is it’s changed public opinion so that people have expectations about how ISPs should behave. My point is simply if there is a groundswell of support directed at Congress, don’t abuse the telecom regulator, which is supposed to be an independent agency.
Veronica B.: Okay. So, maybe Congress needs to make a call on this, but for now the issue is with the FCC and with Chairman Pai. I’d hoped to speak with either him or his chief of staff, but the FCC didn’t get back to me before this episode was set to publish. Meanwhile the calls keep pouring into the FCC.
Male: This is a message for Chairman Pai.
Female: Hello, Chairman Pai. Net neutrality gives each individual access to information without a compromise.
Male: It should be a level playing field. That’s what we need and demand.
Male: When you put too much power in the hands of people who profit off the internet, you’re ruining it for all of humanity.
Female: I’m just sick of fighting this fight. We got the law passed because everyone wanted the internet this way, and now you just want to disregard us all and that’s not okay.
Female: Protect the millions of internet users who are unable to compete with the big bosses.
Male: Let it continue to be the awesome resource it is because the internet is intrinsic to daily life.
Male: Please protect net neutrality.
Female: Please keep net neutrality in place.
Male: I hope you take this message seriously.
Female: Leave it alone.
Male: And have a wonderful day.
Male: Thank you.
Veronica B.: So, we’ve heard from a ton of people in this episode who are pretty fired up and activated about keeping net neutrality and making sure access to the internet doesn’t change for the worse. I recognize my privilege in this conversation because I’m a middle-class white woman living in San Francisco. The effects of net neutrality and not having the net remain neutral aren’t really going to affect me as much as other people out there in the world and that’s what I care about. This is quintessentially an American issue and it’s one of the reasons why I think it’s such a nonpartisan issue. People care about this because we care about being able to elevate the voices of people who don’t have the same access to high broadband speeds or fancy internet connections. That is unbelievable important in this day and age. I think a lot of people really understand that at a very deep cellular level. So, what can you do about it? Well, you could contact the FCC as well and add your voice. It sounds like it wouldn’t hurt to make sure your member of Congress knows what you’re thinking too. Also, it’s a big week for this issue. On Wednesday, July 12, the internet is coming together for a day of action to save net neutrality. The whole wide internet is banding together, people. We’re talking the likes of Netflix, Amazon, Reddit, Kickstarter, Mozilla, too, of course, even Pornhub is crying foul and they’re going to slow down their videos in support. Pornhub, they have 75 million daily users all directly affected by net neutrality. The list is broadened averse, but the one thing they all agree on is defending net neutrality. Fighting for our right to an accessible healthy, sparkly unicorn interweb. You can join the fight too by going to battleforthenet.com. You’ll find all of this information including how to reach the FCC and more in our episode show notes on our website irlpodcast.org. IRL is an original podcast from Mozilla. Listen and subscribe through your favorite app. If you’re listening through Apple podcasts, how about leaving a rating and a review? The theme music for IRL is composed by Roberto Angel-Dwyer and Daniel Byrne and you’re welcome to download and remix it if you want, too. It’s available under Creative Commons license. You can find it on our website. Make sure you let me know if you do. I want to hear it. Next time, a look at internet in security and the hacker heroes who are trying to keep us safe. I’m Veronica Belmont. I will see you online until we catch up again IRL. Leroy Jenkins.