The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has voted to dismantle net neutrality, granting internet service providers (ISPs) the power to prioritise and hinder web traffic at will – with worrying implications for the future of IoT.
The FFC voted three to two, on Thursday, to undo rules regulating companies that provide consumers and businesses with access to the internet. The result sees the net neutrality regulations introduced in 2015, prohibiting ISPs from blocking content or charging a premium for certain services, repealed.
The move also means the federal government will no longer regulate high-speed internet in the same manner as other utilities, classifying it as an information service, rather than telecommunications.
The view of the Trump administration and the FCC, under chairman Ajit Pai, is that the change will enable innovation and more diverse product offerings to customers in the long-run.
However, there are serious doubts (beyond the major ISPs) that the repeal is in the best interests of end users and the clear majority of tech companies. The sore lack of internet service competition in America will likely grow worse, and without competition there is little incentive for providers to offer the best services.
Why net neutrality matters
The internet is a digital extension of ourselves. It is where many of us go to learn, work, play, communicate, and record the meaningful moments in our lives. Yet it is a surprisingly fragile thing, this infrastructural web that allows us to navigate time zones, cultural differences and language barriers in an instant.
Until now, with a reasonable internet connection, Americans have largely been able to do any of these things without the danger of being somehow inhibited by their broadband provider (beyond archaic data caps).
Whether you’re watching Netflix, conducting a webinar, or creating content, ISPs have treated that data equally – not prioritising or restricting access to it in any way. However, the FCCs decision opens the door to ISPs setting up pay walls or otherwise limiting certain services and traffic types in any way they see fit. In other words, as World Wide Web founder Tim Berners-Lee explains, “they’ll be able to decide which companies succeed online, which voices are heard – and which are silenced.”
When Berners invented the World Wide Web in 1989, he didn’t have to pay any fees or ask anyone for permission to make it available over the internet. It was simply a case of creating it and connecting it. With net neutrality repealed, innovators could be required to negotiate with ISPs to get their product onto internet packages.
The impact of net neutrality on IoT
In the early days of ISPs, technical limitations prevented them from throttling certain types of traffic. Net neutrality regulations were introduced as part of the Open Internet Order, under President Obama, to ensure new advancements weren’t employed to undermine the ideals on which the internet as we know it was built. There’s now a danger that ISPs will become all-powerful gatekeepers, rather than focusing on providing good, unbiased connectivity.
The impact of the loss of net neutrality on the data-hungry IoT is potentially profound. IoT device and service companies may find themselves at the mercy of ISPs, having to pay for preferable traffic treatment or risk a hobbled product. This would accelerate the centralisation of IoT, favouring the bigger companies and hampering future innovation and disruption.
Net neutrality and web security
There are also security implications raised by ISPs interfering with web traffic. “The removal of net neutrality is likely to decrease transparency on the internet, and less transparency will increase cybersecurity threats. As ISPs implement different behaviors for managing, filtering and altering content, we’re going to develop towards a bunch of different internets, instead of one internet,” warned Tim Erlin, vice president of product management & strategy at cybersecurity company Tripwire. “It may not be at the forefront of the net neutrality debate, but these changes will ultimately increase the attack surface available to criminals.”
This also raises the prospect of web security becoming a premium product. “If ISPs are no longer required to pass traffic unaltered, they can simply stop end-to-end encryption entirely. Why wouldn’t an ISP charge businesses and individuals more for supporting encrypted traffic?” said Erlin.
Preserving a democratic web
New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman estimates that thousands of Americans’ identities were stolen for use in spam campaigns supporting the net neutrality repeal. Natural language processing techniques have also raised doubts over the authenticity of over a million pro-repeal comments submitted to the FCC.
The political and legal battle over net neutrality is far from over. Opposition from U.S. Congress and legal challenges from Democratic state attorney generals may yet see the repeal undone. There is already talk of legislation to reinstate the rules, though this would take time. The FCC will also likely face legal action from of the Internet Association, the trade group representing tech firms such as Google and Facebook, who have been vocal in their disagreement.
“The internet industry opposes Chairman Pai’s repeal of the 2015 Open Internet Order. Today’s vote represents a departure from more than a decade of broad, bipartisan consensus on the rules governing the internet,” stated the Internet Association. “Relying on ISPs to live up to their own ‘promises’ is not net neutrality and is bad for consumers.”
The way in which FCC chairman Ajit Pai has gone about mocking opponents of the repeal will add to the ire – as will his claims of “restoring internet freedom”. Furthermore, reassurances from the order’s proponents, that internet services will not change, begs the question: if that is true, why repeal net neutrality?
At Internet of Business, we aren’t mollified by commissioner Mr O’Rielly’s assurances that fears over net neutrality’s unravelling are a, “scary bedtime story for the children of telecom geeks”. In the interest of open innovation, free communication and democracy itself, net neutrality should be upheld.