Let’s face it – we are in the middle of a political crisis. No matter what the subject, our country is more divided than ever. On November 22, the day before Thanksgiving, the topic of net neutrality reared its ugly head once again. It came in the form of a draft of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission’s Restoring Internet Freedom proposal, which would repeal the Internet’s classification as a telecommunications service, thus getting rid of the 2015 ruling on net neutrality.
Prior to 2015, the Internet was classified as an information service. Like a telecommunications service, information services also move information around, but it is different enough that it falls under completely separate regulations set by the U.S. government. Many of these regulations stem from the Communications Act of 1934.
The Original Communications Act
The 1930s were a very confusing time for both technology and the economy. We were in the midst of the Great Depression, and the government was working diligently to set forth regulations that would help improve the economy by putting certain limitations (and freedoms) on how both private citizens and companies used newer forms of technology, such as telephones and radios.
By putting the Communications Act of 1934 into law, the government also handed all control of telecommunications from the Interstate Commerce Commission over to the brand new FCC.
Unfortunately (or fortunately depending on which side of the aisle you’re on), the act also laid the ground rules for the arguments we are seeing from both sides today. It defined telecommunications in a way that must still technically be followed to this day (remember, this was an act of Congress, not just a suggestion). According to the Communications Act, telecommunication is defined as the “transmission, between or among points specified by the user, of information of the user’s choosing, without change in the form or content of the information as sent and received.” This definition has not been changed in any way in the past 83 years, so you can see why there’s such a big debate now. Under this definition, we get two bits of information.
First, the information travels to a destination of the user’s choice. This, in 1934, referred to a person making a telephone call. Back then, since we only had access to landlines, this meant calling a friend or neighbor from your physical location to their physical location. Today, this is a bit more complicated with the use of mobile devices. While you may not know the other person’s physical location, their phone number – under this definition – acts as the endpoint in which you are choosing the information to travel to.
Second, the transmitted information is unaltered. This means there is no third-party between the user and their desired endpoint. The information that travels is delivered exactly as the user wants it to. This seems pretty straightforward, but it is also the spark that ignited the fire that has turned into the current net neutrality debate.
Redefining the Internet
During the 2015 vote by the FCC to regulate Internet service providers (ISPs) as common carriers, or transmitters of information equally, they were classifying the actual Internet as a telecommunications service. Basically, these ISPs would have to transmit information equally, not prioritize or filter any of it along the way.
Since the Internet is much more complicated than using a landline telephone, this has led to some confusion based on the Communications Act of 1934’s definition of telecommunications. Essentially, this is what led the head of the FCC, Ajit Pai, to submit the Restoring Internet Freedom proposal. To his point, the Internet acts more like an information service than telecommunications.
According to the act of 1934, information services, unlike telecommunications services, do allow for information being transmitted to be manipulated along the way.
The Internet uses a tool called the Domain Name System, or DNS. This system takes a websites address, usually a mix of numbers and letters, and puts it into a readable text. According to the FCC’s proposal, this is a way that the Internet is manipulating information while sending it to its destined endpoint. The DNS, in conjunction with a process called ‘caching’, which stores information on a device for easy retrieval, thus making it hard to tell where information is actually coming from, have been labeled as evidence in the case to redefine the Internet’s official classification.
What Reclassification Would Mean for Us
Because there is no way to pick-and-choose what the classification of an information service really allows or doesn’t allow, if the FCC chooses to change how the Internet is regulated, this means ISPs can swoop in and begin charging users for things like data volume, what information is transmitted, and use of applications.
For instance, we could see some providers offering bundles in which you pay a fee to access certain entertainment applications like Netflix or YouTube, while others offer different packages or a la carte options. In Guatemala, where net neutrality laws are not in place, thus leaving ISPs to charge whatever they want, many people are using dual-SIM devices that allow them to access content from separate providers.
“Many people will have two SIM cards there because on one SIM card they can access WhatsApp for free, and on another SIM card you access Facebook for free,” says Renata Avila, a senior adviser at the Web Foundation. If you buy a small amount of data that gets used up quickly, WhatsApp will still be accessible after the cap is reached, but not the rest of the internet. If you do try to access other websites or apps, you’ll be prompted to pay more.
In Portugal, providers like Meo, a mobile and home internet provider, offer various packages made up of websites and apps that don’t cut into your monthly data plan. This came to light after a tweet went viral back in October, just before the FCC’s proposal submission.
In Portugal, with no net neutrality, internet providers are starting to split the net into packages. pic.twitter.com/TlLYGezmv6
— Ro Khanna (@RoKhanna) October 27, 2017
Classifying the Internet as an information service without setting any limitations for ISPs would essentially destroy the very foundation that has been set for data transmissions and information gathering in the United States – a country that still claims to have freedoms like net neutrality, although it seems to be working hard to take that away.
The FCC Shouldn’t Get the Last Word
In 2005, the Supreme Court ruled that the FCC has the full authority to change the classification of the Internet as long as it makes a clear case for its decision. Because the FCC is currently arguing the DNS and caching are fundamental parts of how the Internet operates, it legally has grounds to regulate the entire system.
In 1996, Congress classified the Internet as an information service, but deferred to the FCC’s authority to make decisions from then on. Because we have an agency that wants to regulate one of the main sources of communication, and a government branch that may not see eye-to-eye, the case of net neutrality could become a seemingly endless game of Pong – at least for the time being.
For the moment, we are able to take full advantage of being able to search, communicate, and work using the Internet without many limits. If we allow the FCC to change how ISPs are allowed to operate, we could see this freedom slip right through our fingers. To join the fight against the FCC’s efforts to repeal net neutrality, and for more information about what a repeal could bring, sign up here.