by John Mason for The Saker blog
The Internet is an awesome place filled with knowledge and ideas. It lets us access information anywhere and lets us connect with friends and family no matter where we may be. The beauty of the Internet is in its neutrality. It doesn’t care what color we are, what gender we identify as, or how large (or small) are our bank accounts are.
But, the Internet is under siege.
If you’ve been on the web recently, chances are you’ve already heard about the ongoing war for net neutrality. It’s an urgent matter that affects us all- whether you’re a consumer or enterprise. Read on to find out more about the current situation and what you can do about it.
Net neutrality explained
If you’re new to all of this (or just need a quick recap), net neutrality is the principle that ISPs should treat all data on the internet equally and without discriminating by user, content, website, platform, application, type of attached equipment, or method of communication.
The term was first coined by Columbia University media law professor Tim Wu in 2003 and has gone on to be used worldwide.
It’s composed of a set of principles that have existed even before the term was coined. Those principles are:
- Device neutrality: Users must be free to choose and remove the applications they don’t want to ensure freedom of choice and communications for users of network-connected devices. It’s not enough that ISPs don’t interfere with their choices and activities.
- Dumb pipe: This principle likens the Internet to dumb pipes that supply water to a city. Dumb pipes provide a steady water supply to all users and don’t care who the user is or what they’re going to do with it.
- End-to-end principle: Application-specific features should be defined to occur at the end-points of a communications system, or as close as possible to the resources being controlled, whenever possible. They shouldn’t reside in intermediary nodes like gateways and routers.
- Internet neutrality: All internet traffic should be treated equally. This includes files, messages, emails, digital audio files, and digital video files.
- Open internet: The resources of the Internet, along with all the means to operate on it, should be open to everyone- whether individuals, enterprises, or organizations. This is closely related to open-source software.
- Over-provisioning: This is a form of statistical multiplexing that makes liberal estimates of peak user demand. If a network’s core has more bandwidth than its outer edges, then good quality of service is possible without the need of policing or throttling.
- Traffic shaping: Any action on a set of packets which delays some or all of them in order to comply with a desired traffic profile. It’s often accomplished by throttling certain data, like streaming or P2P file sharing.
What happens without net neutrality
For consumers, the absence of net neutrality means that ISPs can prevent them from visiting certain websites by throttling internet speed to those sites or even by redirecting them to competing sites. It could mean the end of freedom of choice and communication since this could lead to a form of censorship of free speech. While it’s true that not all free speech contains values we agree with, the fact of the matter is it still doesn’t give anyone the power to censor it– it’s the principle that counts.
Net neutrality should also be favoured by enterprises. Without these rules, bigger and more established companies (like Google and Facebook) can easily bully the smaller ones out of business. The former can simply pay ISPs to provide faster and more reliable connections to their sites. This also prevents the seeds of newer and more innovative sites from taking root since all the bigger companies are taking all the life-giving sunlight of the free and open Internet.
All in all, the absence of net neutrality favours only the people who are against it (ISPs and bigger companies who don’t want to play fair). We shouldn’t allow these corporations to continue to think that all that matters is what they want.
Brief history of net neutrality in the US and EU
Every war can be traced back to a single unassuming moment in time.
On 7 March 2002, a regulatory framework for electronic communications already existed in the EU called “the Framework Directive and the Specific Directives”. On 1 October of the same year, the war for net neutrality started had started in the US when the FCC decided to treat cable internet access differently from DSL internet access for regulatory purposes. It deregulated cable internet access.
Just 3 months later and the term “Net neutrality” was born in a law review article.
Having deregulated cable internet access, the FCC deregulated DSL as well on 2005. This decision removed many important consumer protections. A few days later, It issues the “proto” net neutrality rules for ISPs. The FCC would then decide on several cases involving net neutrality for years to come.
On 1 May 2006, the US Senate started to consider a net neutrality law as part of an (ultimately doomed) attempt to update the Communications Act. On November 2007, the European Commission started consulting on updating the Framework Directive and the Specific Directives. It considered the effects of a non-neutral broadband access.
On 22 October 2009, the FCC began the proceedings which would ultimately result in the Open Internet Order. On 19 December of the same year, the EU’s “Telecoms Package” also came into force- this was the review of the EU Telecommunications Framework. It would be fully implemented in all member states by May 2011.
The Council of 25 November 2009 also established the Body of European Regulators for Electronic Communications (BEREC) as well as the latter’s office. This Office’s primary purpose was to promote cooperation between national regulatory authorities, ensuring a consistent application of the EU regulatory framework for electronic communications.
On 21 December 2010, the FCC issued the Open Internet Order. This Order was then published in the Federal Register on 23 September 2011- which was immediately challenged by ISP Verizon.
The D.C Circuit Court would then hear Verizon’s oral arguments against the Order on 9 September 2013- where Verizon would admit that the Order was the only thing preventing it from charging websites from reaching its subscribers.
It was at or about this time in Europe that the EU Commission would make its proposal. This would go on first reading in 2014 and be negotiated in 2015 to be completed by an overhaul of EU telecoms rules in 2016.
The D.C Circuit Court then overturned the FCC’s net neutrality rules, on 14 January 2014, on the ground that it was built on a legally flawed foundation. This decision left the FCC with the authority to decide how to re-establish neutrality- which it would try to do in May of the same year.
In a historic vote on 26 February 2015, the FCC passed the renewed Open Internet Order- which had the strongest net neutrality rules to date. It would then face many legal challenges from wireless and cable industries but would go on to be upheld by the D.C Circuit Court on June 2016.
But, everything changed when Commissioner Ajit Pai was appointed Chairman in 2017- who would get the Order repealed on December of the same year.
This is just a quick recap of net neutrality’s history. Here’s a more detailed timeline of the history of net neutrality in the US.
What’s happened so far?
The latest developments currently show a divide in the world’s governments.
It’s currently down for the count in the US since December 2017. The Federal Communications Commission, led by Chairman Ajit Pai, repealed its own net neutrality rules which it created in its 2015 Open Internet Order. This happened despite the millions of US citizens and internet users urging against it. That said, some states (like California) have begun to re-open and re-examine its own net neutrality rules.
On the other hand, it’s recently won a battle on European soil. This is because in 5 July the EU parliament plenary voted against the mandate to start negotiations with Council. However, the defeated Article 13 Censorship Machine hasn’t been fully scrapped since the next European Parliament plenary vote is still coming in September.
There is goods news, though, since the war for net neutrality has been won in India. The Indian government has approved the principles of net neutrality just this Wednesday (11 July). This is a monumental win for the cause that should be emulated by other governments around the world. It shows that India cares more about their citizens rather than catering to the whims of corporations.
What we can do about it
If you’re in the US (or another country that doesn’t support net neutrality), you may have already experienced first hand the effects of the FCC’s repeal. AT&T and other ISPs already started their anti-net neutrality practices since February of this year. But, this doesn’t mean that you should just roll over and let the flames of corporate greed engulf you.
Firstly, to address the issue of being in a country or state that has no net neutrality rules, you may need to use a VPN. A VPN can effectively restore net neutrality by hiding your internet traffic from your ISP. Since your ISP can’t determine what services or content you’re accessing, it won’t have a choice but treat all your internet traffic the same way.
However, noteworthy is the possibility that your ISP may throttle your IP once it finds out you’re using a VPN .This is because while ISPs aren’t able to decipher your data once a VPN encrypts it, the fact that you’re using a VPN to do so could become apparent. This becomes a major problem once ISPs decide to limit or even block VPNs.
This is highly unlikely, though, as VPNs have thousands of IPs which means that your ISP would have to separately throttle/block each IP- a monumental task because some VPNs recycle their IPs every day. Also, since most big businesses use VPNs, your ISP would be damaging a lot of its customers (together with you) if it ever decides to block VPNs altogether.
But, let’s say your ISP does throttle/block your VPN, should you just discard it altogether?
If you ever find that your high-end VPN has been blocked, you can try a smaller, less popular VPN. This is because if your popular VPN got blocked, it’s most likely that it’s IPs were blocked (which, again, is highly unlikely). Switching to a less popular VPN may prove to be an easy fix.
You could also switch to a VPN that offers SOCKS5 or its equivalent (which is what VPNs provide to allow their services in China). SOCKS prevents ISPs from blocking data by generating an arbitrary IP before it reaches its destination.
If you’re using TOR (which has easily-blocked exit nodes), you can pair it with a program called “Lahana” which solves TOR’s problem. Lahana was used to defeat censorship in Turkey.
Furthermore, you could also pair your VPN with SSL tunneling. This wraps VPN encrypted data in an additional SSL encryption which makes it indistinguishable from regular HTTPS traffic. TOR uses something similar to this in the form of obfsproxy, which wraps data in an obfuscation layer.
Now, if you want to help spread the word about net neutrality, you can support PublicKnowledge and SaveYourInternet. These sites are in the frontlines of the war for net neutrality and need all the reinforcements they can get. You can even take a more active approach and join other users in writing to Congress to stop this madness.
John Mason is a privacy enthusiast who used to work as a data analyst. Now he’s writing all things privacy at https://thebestvpn.com/