Net Neutrality in the US: Now What?

Comprehensive info. Time is of the essence, so forgive my inevitable errors.

For those like me who communicate through high-bandwidth media, the FCC’s proposal would be particularly silencing. Better to delay the video I was working on and make this one, rather than do nothing and possibly see all future vihart videos delayed.

A very different sort of video for me. An enjoyable challenge.

Script with embedded links, general links at end:

So say your local mail delivery truck stops in front of your house, which is good because two days ago you ordered two different books with two-day shipping, sent out at the same time from similar locations, and you’re pretty excited for them both.

The delivery driver picks up your two packages and starts reading the labels. One is from a small independent book store they’ve never heard of, the other is from a large chain they’ve already delivered like 20 packages from today.

Instead of just dropping them both off, the driver makes a phone call to the big book seller and says: “Hey, I sure deliver a lot of your packages.” The company replies: “Yes, our customers really like our stuff.” The driver says: “I’m pretty sure your packages take up, like, 30% of the space in my truck. We’re gonna need to hire more trucks if you keep this up.” the company says: “Wow, you must be so happy that our customers are paying you to deliver so many packages from us that you can expand your business!” And the driver’s like: “right, look, I’m thinking I don’t want to carry more than one package all the way to this customer’s door, and there’s this other package from another address for them so I might just deliver that one.

And the big company is like: “what? That customer paid for two day shipping from you, you can’t just decide not to deliver it, what, because we give you too much business?”

The driver says “relax, I’ll deliver it eventually, just might take a while. Unless of course you’d like to help us out, just a little extra shipping fee and we’ll deliver your book on time”

As the customer waiting for your books, what do you think you and the book company should do? Report the driver? No way what they’re doing is legal. So you report them, but it turns out their lobbyists have convinced the government that what they’re doing is ok. No, it’s not just ok, it’s innovation! Fine, maybe you can do capitalism to it. The big book chain starts using another delivery company, one that appreciates the amount of business they’re getting from those deliveries, and of course you’d rather pay for shipping from a company that actually follows through on their promises, and new businesses grow, hooray!

That’s how it should work, which is why a lot of people think that’s how it does work.

So say you have a one-hundred dollar a month contract with Comcast to deliver to you whatever data you order at a certain speed, and you order data from Netflix, and Netflix sends the data your way. But just before it gets to your house it has to go through cables Comcast owns, and Comcast says, “Wow, Netflix, you give us so much business, pay us money or we’ll slow down your site until it’s frustratingly unusable.” Netflix should be able to say “Yeah, no thanks, first of all you’re going to lose customers if you don’t give them the service they’re paying for, and second, why wouldn’t you want to lay down more cable and expand your business? Wouldn’t that make you more money?”

It would make so much sense if Comcast’s reply was, “Gee, Netflix, you’re right! We don’t want to lose customers, we want to lay more, bigger, cable, expand our business, and make more money!”

But, as anyone who pays for their own internet and has tried comparison shopping knows, that’s not how it works. Comcast can reply, “First of all, we’re not gonna lose customers. What can they do, move somewhere else, that has cables laid down by one of our very good friends? Second of all, we don’t need the business from delivering your content, we can already charge as much as we want. Look, this sucker is paying almost a hundred bucks a month for 10 megabytes a second on a good day. third, Netflix competes with our own video content; if Netflix is unwatchably slow and people leave to watch Cable TV, which we’ve conveniently packaged in with their internet service, that’s a win-win, and both wins are for us. Fourth, when your site doesn’t load it may be our fault, but the customer doesn’t see us artificially restricting the data they ordered, they see you being slow. So pay up.”

And Netflix did. This already happened.

Truth is, there’s a lot of homes and businesses where the local internet service provider has a monopoly. Capitalism does not work when monopolies block the way between producers and consumers. That’s not rhetoric, it’s math. Capitalism doesn’t work when it’s impossible for a new business to emerge in a market. Look how much trouble Google is having with Google Fiber, and they’re Google. In many parts of the US there’s a good chance that Comcast is your only option. You’ll pay for internet because you need internet, but you’ll be paying 3 times as much as people are paying for internet in Seoul or Tokyo, for service that’s 10 times slower. We’re being artificially held back, on purpose.

When you order a book, the delivery truck drives on their own driveways, public roads, toll roads, the private lane that goes to the book store’s warehouse, all the way to the street outside your house and then:

In this allegory, you pay Comcast to hire a company to make and maintain a driveway, so that the Comcast trucks can get from the road to your house, and because they built the driveway, only their trucks are allowed to use it. If you lived in Tokyo, you’d have a nice wide perfectly-paved road, but comcast made you a little dirt road full of pot holes. You’d like comcast to fix it, or to hire someone else to, but there’s no one else to hire, so instead of fixing it Comcast charges you even more and still doesn’t fix it.

Here’s the officially proposed rule the FCC is considering: internet service providers must offer some amount of access to all legal internet things, but they can offer a “fast lane” to certain content providers. This sounds like maybe Comcast and Netflix collaborate to put in a special cable all the way from Netflix right to your home to get superfast Netflix service, but that’s not what this fast lane is. It’s not even a nice new paved driveway. The “fast lane” means that comcast puts a gate at the front of your driveway.

The netflix trucks are allowed in right away because they paid off the gatekeeper. You invite your friend over, and your friend has to wait outside the gate for a while, even when no one else is using your driveway.

If you want to watch netflix right now, yes, you should be able to prioritize netflix’s data and slow everything else down. But if after that you want to torrent the latest vihart video, there’s no technical reason you shouldn’t be able to put that in the “fast lane”. You’re not paying your ISP for content, you’re paying them to deliver the content you choose.

Except they decided maybe they do want to control what content you can choose, and the FCC’s proposed rule would make that officially ok. Which is a huge reversal in the FCC’s position that happened when Tom Wheeler, a former cable lobbyist, became chairman.

In 2004, the FCC basically said, “Hey, ISPs, we made some network neutrality rules for you, yay for open internet!” And then Comcast started throttling bittorrent, which was against those rules. There was a court case that Comcast won, with the argument that the FCC couldn’t legally enforce those rules because they weren’t official enough. So the FCC created the Open Internet Order of 2010 and voted on it and passed it and finally, net neutrality had real offical rules! And Verizon took the FCC to court and was like, “Are you sure these rules are for us? Because, they look a lot like the rules for common carriers, and we’re not common carriers, so we’re thinking the rules don’t apply to us.”

And Verizon won. So if the FCC can’t enforce their own rules because ISPs aren’t classified as common carriers, a lot of people think the FCC’s next move should be to classify ISPs as common carriers.

Basically, a common carrier can’t discriminate among the things they carry. Airlines and Telephone Companies are common carriers, so Apple can’t pay Virgin America to not let any Microsoft employees on their flights; T-Mobile can’t purposely drop your call while you’re trying to order a pizza if Domino’s won’t pay them a cut of the order.

Up ’til recently, ISPs have been acting like common carriers. They built their businesses on customers’ expectations that they were common carriers, like other telecommunication services, and with the benefit of the legal protection given to telecommunication services, such as not being liable for the content that moves through their cables. In 1998 the Digital Millenium Copyright Act thing happened, which gave ISPs more protection from liability for their user’s actions, still back when ISPs acted as if they were common carriers. Right now ISPs control content without being liable for that content.

The Telecommunications Act of 1996 helped ISPs become big and powerful, they merged and formed monopolies, and then they decided it was in their best interest not to be considered a “telecommunications service,” but an “information service,” which would be less regulated, and also have fewer protections, but since they were now protected by the DMCA that wasn’t a problem. There were a bunch of hearings. They won, they lost, and then in 2005 they managed to convince 6 out of 9 judges that even though the internet is a telecommunications service, they also do other things, and the Telecommunications Act that would have classified them as a common carrier telecommunications service does not clearly state that they have to be classified that way even if they also do other things.

Many net neutrality activists are asking you to call your representative and sign petitions and make an official comment to the FCC that the current “fast-lane” plan is not net-neutrality, and that the FCC should instead hold strong to its original plan of treating ISPs like common carriers by actually designating broadband internet as a title II common carrier telecommunication service. If you’re going to make that call or official comment I want you to make it with full confidence that it is right and fair, because it’s not legal to classify corporate entities as being whatever you want just because “yay internet.”

And the internet has other problems besides net neutrality. There’s only a handful of ISPs, they’re huge and powerful with huge powerful lobbyists, many of which are now FCC employees, they have local monopolies, they work for each others’ benefit instead of as competitors, and there’s no way for a new competitor to enter their market. Making them common carriers will limit the damage they can do but it won’t make them any less of a cartel.

Comcast is trying to get approval to buy Time Warner Cable and it’s completely nuts that the FCC is even considering it. We have antitrust laws because it’s one of those beautiful mathematical inevitabilities that without intervention, monopolies will form. If you think stopping the biggest ISP from merging with the second-biggest ISP is what antitrust laws were made for, please speak out against this merger and mergers like them.

Links included for doing stuff and learning more. You can call, tweet, or email Tom Wheeler and the other FCC commissioners and tell them what you think about net neutrality, the merger, concern over having so many previous cable lobbyists now working for the FCC, whatever it is you care about. You can ask your local representative in government to do what they can, you can sign petitions, and you can make an official comment on any FCC proceeding on the FCC website, which very few people bother to do because 1. most of the momentum around “saving the internet” is built up around signing up for 3rd party websites and mailing lists or retweeting and upvoting infographics and articles, and 2. For it to be a real official comment, you have to publicly give your real name and address, which might put you off if you’re not absolutely sure you’re doing the right thing.

I hope this video makes things clearer for you.

Politicians love when you personally contact them! It is a fact. If you’re not in the US, make sure your local government considers this state of affairs an embarrassment for the US, not something to model your own rules on.

List of FCC commissioners and their twitters, emails, blogs, instagrams, etc

Don’t know how to contact your representative? Find out who they are and let them know you’re watching them!

Comment form for proceeding 14-28 “Protecting and Promoting the Open Internet”

Comment form for proceeding 14-57 “Applications of Comcast Corporation and Time Warner Cable Inc. for Consent to Assign or Transfer Control of Licenses and Applications”

List of all proceedings available for comment

General “open internet” FCC inbox: openinternet@fcc.gov

whitehouse.gov petition for net neutrality in general
petition for reclassifying broadband as common carrier specifically

Learn more about all this stuffs:

Court case ruling cable internet as an “information service” rather than “telecommunications service”

Communications act of 1934, describing common carriers under title II

Telecommunications act of 1996, including Title V, the CDA

Communications Decency Act, part of the Telecommunications act of 1996, which protected ISPs from liability from certain things

The FCC’s Open Internet Order 2010
Verizon had the above overturned in 2014 as not applying to non-common carriers

Neither of these attempts at net neutrality got through:
Internet Freedom and Nondiscrimination Act of 2006
Communications Opportunity, Promotion and Enhancement Bill of 2006

Data on internet speed and cost: “The Cost of Connectivity”

Terms to know
Antitrust law
Cartel
Common carrier
DMCA
FCC
Game theory
ISP
Monopoly
Net neutrality
Oligopoly
Telecommunication

Also see these other videos on the topic:
BlinkPopShift: Net Neutrality is Dead, Long Live Net Neutrality!
CGPGrey: Internet Citizens: Defend Net Neutrality
Extra Credits: What a Closed Internet Means for Games
Hank Green: The Net Neutrality Debate in 3 Minutes

Thank you Emily Eifler and Christopher Hart for their advice!

This video is Creative Commons non-commercial share-alike.