Net neutrality


Privacy is not the only talk of the town. Another controversy brewing is about net neutrality, which is very likely to stay in the news for many months, if not years. While the subject is limited to the U.S. for now, it will be important for all Internet users and we will see its repercussions in other countries as well, including Turkey.

This strange term "net neutrality" refers to a complicated issue with both technological and legal facets. It significantly affects consumers and their choices, particularly, which services they receive at what quality, via broadband connection.

As is known, separate categories of services such as voice, TV and data are merging into a single service, called broadband.

I suppose, this is now crystal clear to a 12- year old. However, in 2002, the U.S. Federal Communication Commission (FCC), the single institution in charge of regulating "all communication services" in the U.S., decided that broadband is not a communication service within its jurisdiction. Of course, historically telephone lines were voice-only services, and the classical definition of communication was limited to phone and fax. This decision by FCC was a "hands-off policy" for the Internet. FCC decided that it would not apply the same rules of neutrality to the Internet. Perhaps the intention of FCC was to leave off the Internet, not to over-regulate, giving freedom to infrastructure companies, content providers and consumers to shape up the landscape as the Internet develops further and reaches more people. Net neutrality meant that infrastructure companies, the companies whose cable and phone carry the actual traffic, do not check every packet being sent and do not apply preferential treatment. It meant neither censoring nor slowing the Internet packet based on its origin or content. For this reason, net neutrality is often considered the Internet-age equivalent of the First Amendment, a guarantee of the equal treatment of content.

After the FCC's hands-off rule in 2002, the bombs started exploding. In 2005, Southwestern Bell (now AT&T) made headlines by saying that the company and the cable companies invested hundreds of millions in the infrastructure, which is now benefiting content companies Google, Yahoo and Vonage.

Within two years, Comcast customers started seeing a slowdown in service when using BitTorrent (a popular peer-to-peer file sharing network). Then, FCC ordered Comcast not to do that! This went against the FCC's previous argument that broadband was outside of its jurisdiction.

As expected, a U.S. court threw out the FCC's order. FCC then came up with a new set of net neutrality rules in 2011, but they were challenged by Verizon, another infrastructure provider. Finally in 2014, the same U.S. court said that Verizon is right and the FCC does not have the authority to enforce net neutrality rules. When I was writing these lines, there was a proposal from the FCC that would allow the infrastructure companies (which include cable and phone companies such as Cox, Comcast and Verizon) to give preferential treatment to content providers (which include Microsoft, Google and Netflix) for a fee. If this proposal is approved, net neutrality will be killed. This means big content companies with deep pockets will reach the consumers faster and better, while small companies will have to be in the slow lane.

The proposal states two things, however.

There cannot be a deliberate slowing of traffic and content cannot be censored.

But giving preferential treatment to existing large companies will be disastrous to small companies, startups, and nonprofit organizations, as well as to regular Internet users.

If the U.S. sets the precedent in killing net neutrality, the Internet becomes a "speak only as loud as your money" street. There is no question that other countries including Turkey will follow the lead. In the least, the idea of slowing some traffic while letting others go faster will be appealing to some. Perhaps, still, this is not the worst problem. The real problem is the new networking equipment made by major electronic companies such as Cisco, Juniper and Huawei. Full technical censors will be available. Net neutrality was one of the most important rules of the Internet:

You let my packets pass, I do the same to your. If you are impartial, I am too. Once this rule is broken, certain content from certain sources will never reach the customers. This is not just about the "But your video is slowing my network" argument. It is an argument that goes to the heart of Internet.

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