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What loss of net neutrality could mean for consumers, content providers

"It’s not like we’re going to cancel our internet subscriptions and swear off the web," says assistant professor David Choffnes. "That’s like someone in Flint, Michigan, cancelling his water service just to say, 'I’ll show you.'” Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University
Twitter, Facebook, and dozens of other websites participated in a virtual protest to protect net neutrality last week, displaying banners, ads, and alerts in hopes of “saving the open internet.”

The so-called “Internet-Wide Day of Action to Save Net Neutrality” was held in the wake of the Federal Communications Commission’s announcement that it is planning to scrap the net neutrality rules adopted under former President Barack Obama in 2015.

The rules, according to the American Civil Liberties Union, prohibit broadband providers like Comcast, Verizon, and AT&T from “halting, slowing, or otherwise tampering with the transfer of any data, except for legitimate network management purposes such as easing congestion or blocking spam.”

David Choffnes, assistant professor in the College of Computer and Information Science, released a novel Android app for detecting traffic differentiation in mobile networks in 2015. We asked him to explain the ins and outs of net neutrality and how its loss could impact consumers and internet companies alike.

First and foremost, what is net neutrality?

Before you can understand net neutrality, you need to know how information travels on the internet. When data is transferred between people’s computers and the websites they are visiting, it is broken up into bite-size units of data called packets. When it comes to net neutrality, the question is whether we should require internet service providers like AT&T to treat these packets equally, much like a public utility can’t provide “better” or “worse” water or electricity.

Proponents of net neutrality will tell you that ISPs have no business deciding how packets should be treated no matter their content, unless they are working to block the spread of spam, say, or malware. ISPs are also allowed to provide different service to different customers, provided there is a legitimate network management reason for doing so. For example, let’s suppose you and I both subscribe to the same ISP. If I use so much bandwidth that your internet slows down, the provider has the right to slow me down to the point where you get fair access to an internet connection.

One Reddit user has created a series of images that, he said, “would describe what could happen if we lose net neutrality.” One image read, “Dear xfinity customer, we have noticed you are browsing hate-speech websites which include www.battleofthenet.com and www.aclu.org. Your internet speed will now be reduced to 5 Mbps upload and download for the rest of the month.” If the FCC were to scrap the net neutrality rules adopted under Obama, is it plausible that we would we see these kinds of scenarios playing out?

No. Scrapping net neutrality rules does not imply a requirement to make poor business decisions. If it were to happen, images like this would make headlines all across the country and the offending ISP would immediately lose a large number of subscribers. What this Reddit user is trying to get at is this: If the FCC were to give ISPs the OK to arbitrarily give differential treatment to different applications that use the internet, it could set us on a slippery slope toward all kinds of unfair practices.

As an example of the kinds of harms that can occur, consider that many internet providers are also media providers. For example, Comcast owns NBC and AT&T owns DirecTV. Naturally, these network providers have business incentives to make their media products more desirable than their competitors, like Netflix or YouTube. One way to do that is to slow down or block Netflix or YouTube, making them effectively unwatchable. In this case, Netflix and YouTube would lose revenue from subscribers and advertising, which the network provider would gain by steering their subscribers toward content they own. Without net neutrality rules, there is nothing to stop such practices.

“Net neutrality allows small businesses to compete against the largest, most profitable corporations,” former FCC chairman Tom Wheeler co-wrote in a Washington Post op-ed in April. “Because of net neutrality,” he explained, “YouTube was able to contend with Google on a level playing field.” What would the absence of net neutrality mean for small internet companies, particularly those that couldn’t pay broadband providers in exchange for faster internet speeds?

The FCC rules adopted in 2015 explicitly forbid internet providers from the practice of paid prioritization, in which an ISP charges a company like Netflix to get faster speeds or more bandwidth than other services using the same pipe. For many small companies, the cost of doing so is prohibitive. On the other hand, large companies offering a similar service may gladly pay the fee to stifle their competition. Such practices become real threats if the current rules are scrapped.

Many of these potential harms could be fixed in the free market if consumers voted with their wallets and abandoned the providers that give us a gated internet. Unfortunately, in practice we often can’t really do that. In most locations in the U.S., competition among broadband providers is poor, so we can’t easily switch to a provider that will give us better terms. It’s not like we’re going to cancel our internet subscriptions and swear off the web. That’s like someone in Flint, Michigan, cancelling his water service just to say, “I’ll show you.” The internet is critical infrastructure. So much of our daily lives depend on it. And that is why it is so important to ensure that it continues to work well for all participants, from consumers to ISPs to content providers.