Yesterday the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals struck down the FCC's net neutrality rule. There are many pundits who are claiming this is the end of free expression over the Internet and the beginning of content censorship. With this ruling Internet providers now have the legal authority to block, slow down or speed up any content they want that is delivered over their networks. Imagine MSNBC paying Comcast and AT&T to speed up and prioritize the delivery of their content so that a rival like Fox News gets relegated to a slower speed or blocked entirely. Or perhaps Verizon went to Google and Facebook and demanded fees to allow their broadband subscribers access. Why not? Direct TV just did it with The Weather Channel. Comcast dropped the Big Ten Network several years back and I could no longer watch Hoosier basketball. It was a travesty!
This is not a fair comparison, though. Cable companies broker deals with networks to provide what they feel is the content their subscribers want. And cable companies pay those networks for access. In the case of the Internet, broadband providers don't pay websites for their content. They only pay to plug into the bigger global network and they get paid by their subscribers for access to that network.
What this Means
With the net neutrality rule struck down, broadband providers have a case to regulate the content delivered on their private networks and if they do, they have to tell their customers what they are blocking or regulating. In my mind, I feel this is fair. They own the physical network and equipment that connects people to the larger Internet. It is not a publicly funded infrastructure.
They have already done this before, too. Several companies still block access to SMTP port 25 (SMTP stands for Simple Mail Transport Protocol). This is the standard port (or channel) through which email is sent. They did this because home users were getting infected with viruses that would scan their computers and consequently send email via port 25 to everyone on their contact list or use their computer as a make-shift email server to spam others. Most email users send email securely through other ports now, so this doesn't matter as much, but broadband providers were getting hammered with unauthorized virus-related traffic which affected everyone's Internet experience. So they shut it down.
Broadband companies have also blocked peer to peer ports where a lot of content pirating takes place. This consumes enormous bandwidth and much of the traffic, in my non-statistics based opinion, is illegal. They've also had a hand in limiting traffic from video services, such as Netflix, which consumes many gigabytes of data for a single movie. Once a threshold was met, they began to throttle, affecting the end user's experience.
Why it Doesn't Matter (so much)
First of all, I don't think you're going to see much more than we do already. If broadband providers begin to block access to certain websites then customers will move to another provider (assuming they have the choice). To begin blocking and throttling common sites regularly, though, providers will quickly encounter significant technical hurdles.
- HTTPS. Website traffic (which aside from video streaming traffic represents most of the traffic on the Internet) uses the HTTP protocol. Standard HTTP sends everything over network port 80 in plain text. It's easy to sniff network packets and see where a user is going. But then there is HTTPS which is the secure version of HTTP. It traditionally runs over network port 443 and all of its traffic is heavily encrypted with increasingly robust SSL certificates. In other words, it's nearly impossible to decrypt, so broadband providers can't find out where the user is going, except by the physical IP address (e.g. 220.127.116.11). Even with that they may know that CNN runs their web servers on the IP address 18.104.22.168 but CNN likely has hundreds of servers with varying IP addresses and can change most of those with just a few mouse clicks (yes, I'm oversimplifying here!). Bottom line, it is really hard to crack an HTTPS web session and keep track of the millions of domains and their rotating IP addresses. Using HTTPS keeps your sessions private and does not allow broadband providers much insight into what you're doing. The only caveat is that the website you're visiting must have an SSL certificate in place so that you can use HTTPS with their site.
- Proxy Servers. A proxy server is basically a virtual tunnel for Internet traffic. Within minutes, I can redirect all my computer's traffic to a proxy server in India or Hong Kong which then acts as the origination for all of my network traffic. My broadband provider only knows that I have a connection to some random IP address on some random port. If they block it, I can choose another and then another. I have a nearly unlimited number of choices through which I could direct my traffic and they will have no idea what I'm doing.
- New Protocols. HTTP and HTTPS are just two out of hundreds of protocols that define the delivery of data from its source to its destination. There are others that could be adopted in place of HTTP. If so, broadband providers would have to redevelop their snooping infrastructure to accommodate those new protocols.
Perhaps you're thinking that the average individual wouldn't take these steps and you're right... for now. With an entire world of people wanting open and free access to information they will continuously innovate to get around those evil corporations and easy to use tools will be developed for the average Joe Schmoe to do the same.
The only real leverage broadband providers have is to generally limit how much data people consume or throttle the speed at which it is delivered. Not where it comes from. We're lucky right now that we get fast, unlimited data but the idea of charging fees for heavier users has already been pushed around. And, as long as people have a choice of providers, they should be able to charge based on quantity and speed. But if they begin to do this you can bet your wallet that the backlash from their subscribers will be severe and harsh. Consumers found their voice online a long time ago and their message will certainly be heard.