Beware ISPs Bearing Promises

The same ISPs currently promising to honor the principle have already demonstrated beyond any doubt their hostility toward net neutrality.
06/22/2017 06:31 pm ET Updated Jun 23, 2017
Mike Blake / Reuters

Want to know what the two most commonly spoken words are among con men and charlatans?

Trust me.”

Call me a cynic, but when the internet service providers that make up the National Cable Television Association took out a full-page ad to demonstrate their “commitment to an open internet,” I laughed until chamomile tea came out my nose – which was truly strange because I was drinking a martini at the time… But I digress.

The reason for my skepticism ― and the utter incredulity of a lot of other people who have watched the ongoing policy debate over net neutrality a lot more carefully than I have ― is quite simple: The same ISPs currently promising to honor the principle have already demonstrated beyond any doubt their hostility toward net neutrality.

Trusting the likes of Verizon and Comcast to voluntarily honor the principle and practices of net neutrality is like overturning laws prohibiting extortion then trusting mobsters not to shake down merchants for protection money. In either case, we’re asking a vain, self-serving zebra not just to change his stripes, but to pretend he didn’t really want the stripes in the first place.

OK, so my zebra metaphor is more than a bit unkind to the famously striped African equids, but you see my point. Why would I trust Verizon, a company which has already sued the FCC over its net neutrality rules, to voluntarily follow those same rules?

Do I have the word “sucker” tattooed on my forehead in all caps?

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai has proposed a reversal of the FCC’s net neutrality rules, he says, because the current rules are preventing ISPs from investing in their networks and developing new infrastructure.

In other words, if we consumers want our ISPs to invest in their own businesses, we need to take it on the chin and open ourselves up to unfair and ignoble practices like bandwidth throttling (which Comcast has been caught at by the FCC before, after swearing on a Bible stack of technical manuals they would never do so) and guaranteeing optimal data delivery only to the highest bidders.

Without rules in place to guarantee net neutrality, we will all be at the mercy of our ISPs, which is a bit like being at the mercy of a particularly cruel dominatrix – one who puts on noise-cancelling headphones so she can’t hear you shouting your safe word.

Without net neutrality guarantees backed up by FCC rules (or maybe better yet, a federal law passed by Congress), there will be nothing to stop ISPs from striking deals to deliver content at varying speeds, depending on how much they’re being paid by the website or content provider in question.

This may not be a problem for the likes of Hulu or Netflix, both of which certainly have the money and the popularity-driven clout to get a good deal of out the ISPs, but for smaller companies and content producers with smaller audiences, the removal of neutrality guarantees is a potentially fatal blow.

As much as I love Netflix and Hulu, I’m also quite fond of a lot of content produced by companies and individuals who will never be as big, popular or wealthy as those two companies. In fact, as an independent filmmaker, I am one of those individuals, and it pains me to think my viewers and fans might be forced to settle for far less than optimal delivery of my movies, should net neutrality become subject to the voluntary whim of the ISPs.

While they’re in the process of striking deals with the highest bidder, there will also be nothing to stop ISPs from throttling, blocking or otherwise monkeying with content considered to be outside the ‘mainstream’ of entertainment, from documentaries to erotic films. In other words, ISPs could become self-appointed arbiters of taste, no added legal or PR-based rationale required.

While there’s plenty of reason to believe the FCC may follow through with Pai’s proposal regardless of public opposition, despite Pai’s insistence the FCC’s recent vote to being the rollback is the “beginning of the process, not the end,” we do at least still have an opportunity to make our voices heard on net neutrality.

Along with Pai’s proposal has come a new public comment period, with a first round deadline coming up on July 17, and second round which will extend to August 16.

The FCC hasn’t made it particularly easy or convenient to contribute your feedback, but fortunately there are resources which make it easier to decipher the FCC’s commentary system.

TechCrunch explains the process here, The Verge has a step-by-step you can follow, and there’s John Oliver’s GoFCCYourself.com, which redirects straight to the relevant FCC form. (If you use FCCYourself.com to find the page, it’s still worth reading either the TechCrunch or Verge instructions, as they offer more info to help demystify the form itself.)

It’s also important to understand the comment form isn’t a place to simply go vent, or to insult Pai or the FCC. Doing so might feel good on a personal level, but it won’t do much to sway the FCC or to help the cause of net neutrality.

Instead of merely blowing off steam in the FCC’s direction, before you submit your commentary, take some time to familiarize yourself with the issue (if you aren’t already) and the many good arguments in favor of net neutrality. This way, when you submit the form, you’re giving the commissioners food for thought which goes beyond calling them a bunch of bureaucratic dopes, or slaves to the telecom lobby.

At the very least, creating a record of our strong desire to maintain net neutrality will put pressure on the U.S. Congress to codify net neutrality in a set of federal laws and regulations which can’t easily be set aside by the FCC, regardless of who happens to be running the place at the time.

Either way, now is the time to stand up and be counted on this issue. Whether you use the internet constantly for important work, or just to watch the occasional cute cat gif, you benefit from keeping the internet open and equal – not just open to the highest bidder.

What do you think? Let’s talk about it  —  @AngieRowntree.

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