Get ready to be a guerrilla activist for net neutrality

The Thinker by Rodin

These regulations to end net neutrality the FCC are likely to pass next month makes no sense. Okay, it does make sense if you want to free Internet Service Providers to discriminate the delivery of content over the web or if you think it makes sense for them to prohibit some content from being delivered at all. That’s clearly how it could end up affecting us customers. What doesn’t make any sense is the rationale that FCC commissioner Ajit Pai is using to end net neutrality.

Pai argues that free of the burden of net neutrality, ISPs will want to invest in their infrastructure instead, presumably delivering us more and greater broadband and more services. No, really! This is truly so laughable it’s amazing if Pai can say this with a straight face. Free of the “burden” ISPs like Comcast – if they think they can get away with it – will work hard to figure out how to pad their bottom line in new and creative ways and spending money to build higher speed networks won’t do that. It’s not you they care about; it’s their stockholders but also how much money they can make off their monopoly in bonuses and stock options.

With a few exceptions, ISPs have monopolies. With net neutrality though they can’t discriminate on what content is delivered and how quickly it is delivered. We still have to pay their ridiculous usury fees but at least we don’t have to pay extra for the privilege of streaming Stranger Things or worry that if we want to wax our carrots on pornhub.com we need to chip in an extra $10 a month for an “all adult access pass”. We don’t have to worry that Time Warner will cut off our access to washingtonpost.com because they don’t like its liberal content or force our browsers to show news clips from Fox News.

It’s hard to know now which of these scenarios will actually happen if net neutrality rules go away. We do know that in Portugal the mobile carrier Meo “innovated” by letting you decide what sort of content packages you want. Want access to social networks this month? Meo will charge you €4.99 a month for the privilege and if not, well no Facebook or Twitter for you. I strongly suspect that given the “magic” of the free market here in the USA things will get much more creative than this.

And it’s not like you are likely to have a choice, certainly not here in Western Massachusetts where I live as Comcast has the lock on high speed internet. You choices are to maybe get a dial up service if there is still a phone company out there doing landlines and your house is suitably wired, which is what I was doing until 1999. Or you could stick a huge satellite antenna in your yard (if you have a yard and the HOA allows it) and point to a Hughes satellite, and pay handsomely for the privilege of really crappy Internet service. You can also try to run your Internet through your cell phone on a network like Verizon although 4G speeds are mediocre at best compared to broadband and wireless Internet tends to be pricey. Or I suppose you could exercise your freedom by disconnecting from the Internet and maybe going once a week to use a computer at your public library to check your email.

Comcast says it supports net neutrality but it wants to be free of its rules anyhow, which is a polite way of saying it doesn’t support them and will see how much it can get away with once the cops go away. If you are lucky enough to have a choice of high-speed Internet providers maybe you will get some competition and relief from these rules. When we lived in Northern Virginia we could choose between Cox and Verizon FiOS. We paid about $25 less per month for better service than we get here.

But really, what incentive will Comcast and other ISPs have to improve their network? What usually drives these improvements is competition, something they don’t have to worry about any more than Ma Bell had to worry about it in the 1960s in most communities. Ma Bell did have to worry about Public Service Commissions, but with the FCC going to a hands-off mode there will be virtually none of that at the FCC. Supposedly the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) will take up the slack, according to Pai. There are two problems with this approach. First, the FTC is understaffed so it won’t have much ability to take action, a situation the Trump administration is likely to make worse. Second, since they have no rule making authority they can only say that in this instance an ISP is acting against trade rules.

So how do you fight this, particularly when the FCC appears so tone deaf that it will ignore 20 million comments filed, mostly in support of net neutrality? Since these rules seem likely to pass, we have to hit ISPs where it hurts: in the pocketbook. Here are my suggestions:

  • Municipalities should build their own broadband networks. No one in Chattanooga, Tennessee is complaining about their municipal network but you can bet Comcast doesn’t like it and has been working state legislators to get rid of it. Their rationale: it’s not competitive but nearby communities that aren’t on the municipal network pay Comcast a lot more than city residents do for inferior service. Such innovation!
  • Boycott ISPs to the extent possible if they don’t practice strict net neutrality. ISPs usually provide cable services. Cut your cable to a basic plan or get rid of it altogether and use a HD TV antenna instead. Let them know why you are doing it and that you won’t come back until they practice strict net neutrality again.
  • Use a VPN service while you can. I wrote about this back in April. With these new rules, ISPs will be free to track your usage and sell the information to the highest bidder. Until they block VPN ports or degrade service, this at least allows you to get the full Internet, perhaps with some degradation of service as content will have to go through a proxy. Most likely though ISPs will either block or degrade VPN services, but it may work for a little while.
  • Protest regularly outside local, regional and national ISP office. Be noisy and in their faces. If you own stock in these companies, go to their annual meetings and raise holy hell.
  • Petition Congress. The FCC is clearly planning to stay tone deaf while the Trump Administration survives. You can complain to your representative and senator and pledge to vote against them if they don’t support net neutrality.
  • Vote for candidates who support of net neutrality. Democrats are not necessarily supporters of net neutrality. It took a major campaign in 2013 to get the Obama Administration to favor rules in this area. Expect Congress and the Trump Administration to stay tone deaf, but definitely support candidates that promise to bring back net neutrality. By and large they will be Democrats. If you can, do more than vote for these candidates, but use your friends and social networks (to the extent ISPs will allow you to!) to campaign for them as well.

I bet these new rules likely to pass next month probably won’t last long. But it will take major activism from many engaged Americans to roll these back. Plenty of energy is there already if 20 million comments were filed, but apparently we need more. So be prepared to take action and not to roll over on this. Complain to your ISP and cut back your use of their services if they discriminate based on content origin. And protest, protest, protest! This should be an issue that both Democrats and Republicans can agree on.

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