Internet Privacy and Net Neutrality

If you read the news lately you may have seen that a storm is brewing in the Net Neutrality area.
One hurdle in these issues is the assumption that one or the other side is “right” and therefore the other side is "wrong." Unfortunately, often the two sides are both special interest groups. In a lot of the net neutrality and Internet privacy issues, the arguments are between the Internet content providers and Internet access providers. This is between say, Facebook and Google, the content providers on one side, and Comcast, Charter and Verizon, the Internet access providers, on the other.

Another Internet “Day of Action”

To protest the planned repeal of the Net Neutrality rules, on July 12th many websites, including Amazon, Reddit, Netflix, Etsy, Kickstarter, BitTorrent as well as other organizations like Mozilla, Writers Guild of America, ACLU, and Creative Commons “came together to sound the alarm about the FCC’s attack on net neutrality.” The plan was to provide tools for everyone to “take action.” In the aftermath, both sides are claiming victory. Many of the ISPs have confused the issue by saying that they too "support" Net Neutrality but to them, that means getting rid of the Net Neutrality rules altogether. We will see what happens.

The Privacy Issue

In the privacy issue, everything that the Internet service providers are being accused of doing or planning to do are things that the Internet content providers are already doing. Facebook and Google are reading your messages and searches and selling that information to advertisers already, every day. That is why you can do a search in Google and then see an ad for that product on Facebook. Most websites you visit have both Google tracking code and Facebook tracking code. Why do you think Facebook gives away those “like me on Facebook” widgets? Why do you think Google gives away free analytics code so webmasters can see how many people visit their website. Even if you don’t click that “like” button, Facebook knows you went to that website and so does Google.

Facebook Reads Your Mail

Once, over a year ago I private messaged someone on Facebook about buying a lawn mower. More than a year later I looked at my Facebook profile and saw that Facebook had listed “lawn mower” as one of my interests. I have never liked a lawn mower page or group. The only time I mentioned the word “lawn mower” was in that private message. Creepy. I guess that is why they just call it “Messenger” now. How would you feel if the US Postal Service read through your mail? Google recently announced that they would no longer target advertising based on your email messages.


In a surprise move, last month the Republican Representative from Tennessee, Marsha Blackburn, introduced the Balancing the Rights of Web Surfers Equally and Responsibly (BROWSER) Act of 2017, which would designate the Federal Trade Commission as the sole enforcer of online privacy and apply the same privacy rules to edge providers like Amazon, Google and Facebook, that it does to ISPs, protections similar to the ones the FCC imposed only on ISPs before they were nullified earlier this year by Congress. For the most part, neither the Internet service providers or the content providers support this legislation as it would restrict both sides.

Trading Information for Service

One big difference between Internet Service providers and Internet Content providers is that Internet content providers, in exchange for collecting your data and showing you ads, provide their service for free. Maybe a viable Internet ecosystem is one where consumers get Internet connections for free in exchange for their personal information and being shown advertising, similar to the way Google and Facebook operate. This is not to say that Facebook and Google do not go way beyond propriety in their collection and use of personal data but at least you do not have to pay for the service that spies on you.

Preying on the Weak

Just last month it surfaced in the newspaper, The Australian that Facebook was studying how to use Facebook’s insight into the emotional state of teens so that Facebook could better market to them when they were feeling “worthless” or needed a “confidence boost.”
As the police say, “everything you say (on Facebook) can and will be used against you (to sell you stuff).”

Equal Playing Field

One of the stated reasons that new FCC Chairman Ajit Pai’s gives for wanting to get rid of the guidelines put in place last year is because it only covered the access providers and not the content providers. That hardly makes sense. If a fence protected you from bears but not snakes would you tear that down before you put up a fence that protected you from both? Only if you used to be a lawyer for the bears. It probably has nothing to do with the fact that you are thinking of going back to work for the bears after you leave the FCC. Ajit Pai used to work for Verizon before coming to the FCC.

Who Donates to Which Party?

It almost breaks down to what Industry donates to which party. For the most part, it seems that the Internet Service Providers like AT&T and Comcast, donate to the Republican party and the content providers donate to the Democrats, hence the Internet privacy and Net Neutrality rules passed under Obama seem to favor the content providers while the rules currently under consideration favor the ISPs. Now, I know there are going to be instances where this is not the case but this seems like an observation that is generally true.

The Federal Communications Commission

As of when this article was being written, the FCC was not fully staffed. There are supposed to be five members with no more than three members coming from the President’s party. Generally, this translates to three members of the President’s party and two from the opposing party, although it could be one member of the opposing party and one independent member. Currently, there are two Republicans and one Democrat so there are two seats unfilled.  To add to the complexity, Chairman Ajit Pai’s term expired on July 1st of last year. President Trump has nominated him to be reconfirmed as FCC member. The lone Democrat currently on the board is Mignon Clyburn. Her term expires at the end of June.
Former commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel was recently renominated by Trump. She had been renominated by Obama last year but Trump withdrew her nomination after taking office. He then renominated her again after a few months. Maybe he wanted it to be his idea. It is uncertain if Trump will renominate Clyburn or not but the Commission is two members short with another two members with terms expired or soon to expire. Either way, it is unlikely that the balance of power would shift from the Republicans.
FCC commissioners are allowed to stay in office for up to one and a half years after their term expires if they are not re-appointed and no replacement is appointed. Pai has until the end of this year for his reappointment to be approved.

Net Neutrality

A key issue of net neutrality is again primarily between the Internet content providers and Internet access providers. The issue sometimes gets presented as cut and dry but there are factors that don’t generally come up in the conversation. The content providers, like Netflix, are objecting to the ISPs charging additional fees for delivering their content to the computers or smart phones of their customers. Sometimes it goes the other way where a service provider allows free data from its own streaming service but not others. AT&T might not charge for data usage for its own DirecTV services but might charge for Netflix or some other competitor. But now that doesn’t seem as important these days since all the major mobile phone providers have unlimited plans. Some Internet service providers do still have data caps on home Internet and could not count certain content against the cap. Usually, the users don’t object to getting the free service but it does give an unfair advantage to some content providers.

Free Shipping

An analogy I have heard is if you order something on Amazon, someone, either you or Amazon, has to pay for the shipping. Sometimes Amazon ships it via Fed Ex and Fed Ex delivers it to the local post office who then brings it to your house. Regardless of whether you or Amazon is paying for the shipping, Fed Ex and the USPS will want to get paid for the part of the delivery that they were responsible for. This is often the way it is on the Internet, the content provider has one provider that connects them to their server and the person looking at the site has another. Both of them are paying for the connection.
If you watch a movie on Netflix, someone has to pay for the delivery through the Internet to your house. If you have high-speed Internet without a data cap, that should be enough. You are paying for the access to Internet content. But sometimes the Internet providers were slowing down content from sites like Netflix or charging them extra for fast transfer of their data.
Then another wrinkle is when you do have a data cap or you get charged for how much data you use. Some providers want to not charge you for data that they have a vested interest in. AT&T owns DirecTV which has a streaming service, DirecTV Now. They might want to deliver their streaming service for free, giving their streaming service an advantage over say YouTube, Netflix or another streaming service.
But a big difference in the two examples of a package delivery and Internet delivery is that the ISPs take billions of dollars in subsidies from the government each year to provide access to everyone, no matter where they live. AT&T is currently getting almost a half a billion dollars a year to build out Internet infrastructure in rural areas. Should they really be charging you extra if you want to watch Netflix? That is just one government subsidy program. Maybe AT&T needs so much in subsidies since they pay CEO Randall Stephenson $25 million a year. AT&T’s CEO isn’t even the highest paid. Tom Rutledge, Charter’s CEO, made almost $100,000,000 last year.
Verizon has spent almost $9 billion to acquire AOL and Yahoo to amass content to rival Comcast, who owns NBCUniversal. Verizon spent this money despite consumer advocates charging that Verizon failed to deliver network upgrades that they charged customers billions for.  AT&T already owns DirecTV and has made a bid for TimeWarner Inc. If Verizon has $9 billion to acquire AOL and Yahoo, shouldn’t they be able to provide consistent high-speed Internet without government subsidies and over charging?
Note: Contrary to popular belief, the US Post Office DOES NOT receive a subsidy from the US Government; they are totally self-supporting. As a matter of fact, the Federal Government has been known to raid the Postal Service pension fund on occasion when they need some money.

Government Minding Your Business

I am not a fan of the government telling business owners how to run their business. I don’t think the government should tell a business that they have to serve someone if they don’t want to.
In the best of all possible worlds, I would say that Internet Service Providers should be able to deliver the service they want to deliver to who they want to deliver it to. However, if you are taking money from that person or business then you should provide the service. For example, if you have a costume shop, but you really hate clowns, should you be required to carry clown costumes? Of course, if you don’t carry clown costumes you will be losing business but if that is your choice, it is your choice. And if the clowns got together and protested the fact that you were excluding them then that is the result of a business decision that you made.
BUT, and it is a big BUT, if you are providing your service in a building built by tax payer money and you are taking subsidies and you are getting special treatment by the government for providing the service then you should provide that service to everyone on a level playing field.
It would be great if the Internet provider/Telecom industry could self-police like the…, umm, well I am sure there must be some industry that can keep themselves ethical. Actually, it seems for the most part industry lobbyists are able to co-opt any government agency that is created to police them, transforming it into a regulatory agency that in fact, works to stifle competition and keep money flowing into the coffers of the existing corporations. One way they do this is the corporate revolving door. It is amazing how many government and corporate employees go back and forth between the corporation and the government agency that is responsible for regulating that industry. The number of politicians who leave office and become lobbyists is no small number either.
These are my thoughts on the subject, Net Neutrality is more complicated than most people realize.

What do you think? Comment below.

- By Wayne Porter