On March 1, 2018, Comcast customers could not reach the Germany-based encrypted email service, Tutanota, using their Comcast broadband connections. According to Zack Whittaker, writing for Zero Day at ZDNet…
Starting in the afternoon on March 1, people weren’t sure if the site was offline or if it had been attacked. Reddit threads speculated about the outage. Some said that Comcast was actively blocking the site, while others dismissed the claims altogether. Several tweets alerted the Hanover, Germany-based encrypted messaging provider to the alleged blockade, which showed a “connection timed out” message to Comcast users.
It was as if to hundreds of Comcast customers, Tutanota didn’t exist.
But as soon as users switched to another non-Comcast internet connection, the site appeared as normal
The outage is activating advocates for net neutrality because it seems like Comcast was blocking a website that it didn’t like. Or it could be a technical glitch between Comcast and Tutanota. This happened in 2015 when HBO launched HBO Now, the standalone service that does not require a multichannel video (“cable-TV”) subscription. (Comcast is the largest multichannel video provider and distributor in the United States.) The outage prompted an outrage from Comcast customers who could not access HBO Now’s website and accused Comcast of acting in bad faith. It turned out to be a technical glitch involving DNS.
That 2014 HBO Now incident and this recent Tutanota outage underscores the reasons why we need net neutrality. Without it, the Internet can’t operate as a bona fide communications network and can block whatever site they see unfit. In the United States, broadband Internet is monopolized by a small number of companies, and the broadband oligopoly creates distrust between consumers and Internet service providers. Net neutrality is not just good for the broadband customers but also the companies who run these networks.
I’m about two weeks late in posting about Rob Bliss’s attempt to raise awareness about net neutrality. Bliss rode his bike and set up traffic cones to throttle automobile traffic outside the offices of the Federal Communications Commission. Like the Burger King commercial I posted about last month, the metaphor of the bicyclist causing artificial congestion isn’t the best way to explain what is wrong, even if it makes motorists angry because they can’t go as fast as they want without first paying a toll or running-down the pesky cyclist.
Allow me to offer a better metaphor of what driving would be like without a “net neutrality” for roadways. Say, for example, that Ford built all the roads in your town. Ford allows all Ford cars and trucks to drive on these roads as often as they want at no cost. However, if you own a Toyota and want to drive to the grocery store, either Toyota the automaker or Toyota drivers will have to pay a toll of some type. Perhaps, Ford has a deal with Honda, allowing Honda drivers to also use the Ford roads for no cost. But it comes with certain restrictions: anyone driving an Accord can only drive with two passengers and no cargo. Otherwise, those drivers will have to pay an additional toll or subscribe to an expensive unlimited driving and carriage plan. And what about Tesla? Would those cars ever get to even use these roads? Probably not. So everyone in your town will basically own only a Ford because it’s cheaper and simpler to just do that. And because there’s no competition for Fords in your town, everyone will have same set of crappy Ford cars and trucks, and Ford will have no incentive to ever make anything other than those same crappy cars and trucks.
I should note that Ford has actually been making better cars and trucks than it did over the last half-century, but that’s partly because they don’t enjoy the kind of dominance they once had and because they responded to competition from Asian and European automakers.
As is becoming clear, raising awareness of net neutrality is not as crucial as it was just a few years ago. It’s clearly a hot political topic. What we need to do is to act: to do whatever it takes—through legislation or litigation—to ensure the Internet remains an open platform for communication. The Internet belongs to no one, but in the United States, the final mile belongs to one of a few corporations, usually your cable provider or an incumbent telephone company. We must insure that the infrastructure owners do not get to regulate or dictate what content can be carried over that final mile. Otherwise, we’ll all be driving metaphorical Ford Pintos on the Internet.
Burger King produced an online video advertisement using the delivery of their signature Whopper sandwich to explain how an Internet service provider can discriminate against a non-preferred website or Internet service. You can watch the nearly three-minute video on YouTube.
In this ad, a Burger King location implements a tiered delivery system. One can buy a “premium” Whopper that comes with a higher Mbps, which of course for broadband means “megabits per second” but at this Burger King location means “making burgers per second.” When an irate customer questions the delay, a Burger King counter employee explains that Burger King prefers to sell chicken sandwiches and Chicken Fries (which are way less gross than I expected, by the way) so it offers those at a standard rate. However, if you want a Whopper, as many customers in this video want, you will either have to wait for it to come through the slow pipeline or have to pay an additional fee to have it prioritized.
The sandwich offerings at Burger King offer a clear, yet imperfect metaphor for the websites and Internet services that can be blocked or throttled by an Internet service provider. The chicken sandwich and Chicken Fries presumably represent the video content and websites owned by the ISPs or their parent companies. I previously explained that this is why AT&T is looking to acquire Time Warner’s vast media holdings and why Verizon and Comcast have already acquired content companies—Oath and NBC-Universal, respectively—over the last decade.
The metaphor falls apart somewhat because Burger King “owns” the Whopper as well as Chicken Fries, and, of course, they block access to other options. It’s not like you can walk into a Burger King and order a Diet Coke or a Big Mac. However, it’s not like there are places in the world where you’re stuck only ever going to Burger King or McDonald’s but never the other. You have a choice in fast food establishments (and other ways to procure calories), but you almost certainly don’t have a choice in your Internet service provider.
After a while, the customers in the video understandably get impatient, angry, and frustrated.
And some even get physical. A couple of customers grab and tug at the bag from the counter employee. As per Burger King policy, he is waiting until the arbitrarily imposed latency period on the Whopper has elapsed.
Basing a fast-food ad on a wonky communications policy, albeit one with significant real world consequences, seems counterintuitive and even unbelievable. Would anyone understand this? Would anyone get the jokes? Yes, of course. Burger King wouldn’t have bothered making this video if a lot of people wouldn’t understand it and wouldn’t get the jokes. Free Press’s Craig Aaron notes that the ad demonstrates just popular and widely know net neutrality is among young people. He writes, “right now Net Neutrality ranks high on the list of concerns of millennial voters — right up there with marijuana legalization. If nothing else, BK knows its target demo.”
A few months ago, I wrote about how Coca-Cola introduced OK Soda to expands it reach to customers who were presumably too jaded to drink Coke. In that post, I referenced a video and describes it as “postmodern.” While I preferred the term “self-referential” to “postmodern,” this ad uses the same technique. At the end of the video, there’s a self-referrential wink-and-a-nod to those in-the-know with when the King appears in the store’s parking lot and takes a drink from an oversized Reese’s coffee mug.
That’s a reference to Chairman Pai’s stupid oversized Reese’s coffee mug, which was featured in Last Week Tonight with John Oliver last year. Most people likely know about the mug as do about the impact of Title I versus Title II classification: that is to say, a lot of people know.
He often appears with this mug as a bit of “dad humor,” making himself seem jovial and self-deprecating, much like he did when he danced with a “wannabe Pizzagater” in a video published on a right-wing, junk news website. It is also an attempt to distract from his corporate friendly policies that threaten the public interest.
However, as I’ve regularly warned on this site, Chairman Pai’s regulatory actions, such as repealing net neutrality, eliminating broadcast ownership caps, and allowing right-wing ideologues to reach virtually every American household, are no laughing matter.
As I’ve mentioned before in a series of posts on this site, this is one of several deregulatory measures that this FCC, led by Chairman Pai, to give broadcasters and Internet service providers more power at the expense of consumer protections and the interest of the public.
Repealing the FCC’s net neutrality rules will make it possible for Internet service providers—your “beloved” cable and telephone company—to turn the Internet to something that could look like what we had with AOL in the 1990s: a closed network with curated content with limited access to the open Internet. The latter is what doomed AOL and its 2000 merger with Time Warner.
If you’ve been paying attention, you’ll know that AT&T is attempting to acquire Time Warner and its vast library of media properties and content. With net neutrality rules out of the way, a provider like AT&T can realize its vision to dominate the Internet. Tim Wu, who coined the term “net neutrality” predicted as much in his 2010 book The Master Switch. Wu writes:
it doesn’t take a genius to realize that if AT&T and the cable companies exercised broad discretion to speed up the business of some firms and slow down that of others, they would gain the power of life and death over the Internet.
The telecommunications companies can do this because repealing net neutrality rules reclassifies broadband Internet service providers from common carriers to information services. The days of Internet-as-we-know-it might be numbered. At worst, it will be something like AOL in the 1990s. Or it will be something like cable TV and its curated 500-channel universe. Both were information services.
Centralize All Broadcast Activities
But it’s not just the Internet that Chairman Pai’s FCC has given over to the major corporate interests; he’s also cleared the way for broadcast station owners to expand their reach through out the United States.
Back in April, Chairman Pai led the FCC to restore the UHF discount rule, allowing owners of all-UHF stations to reach as much as 78% of all US households. As I wrote earlier, the UHF discount rule was developed in an era when US TV households mostly watched VHF channels 2-13 over UHF channels 14-69. The Obama-era FCC eliminated that discount on the grounds that the rule was deprecated. There is no difference in terms of VHF and UHF stations in today’s multichannel TV environment.
Also today, at the same Commissioners meeting to vote down the net neutrality rules, the FCC voted to review eliminating the 39% TV station ownership cap rule. This rule, designed to keep one station owner from reaching too many people through broadcasting, was already a relaxed version of the FCC’s original seven-station rule. But Chairman Pai apparently wants to allow broadcast station owners to reach even more American households and further reduce the diversity of voices using the public airwaves.
Both the UHF discount and the give Sinclair Broadcasting and the “New Fox” the opportunity to grow the number of broadcast TV stations they can own and expand their reach to US households. Not only could this have some competitive implications, it also forebodes some chilling ideological consequences. It’s not unlike what the Nazi’s chief propagandist Joseph Goebbels wrote in 1933:
Above all, it is necessary to centralize all radio activities to place spiritual tasks ahead of technical ones, to introduce the leadership principle, to provide a clear worldview, and to present this worldview in flexible ways.
Both Sinclair’s and Fox’s owners are both staunch conservatives and supporters of Chairman Pat’s boss Donald Trump and their news coverage has consistently supported Trump’s policies.
Take Action on Net Neutrality
Although I realize that the tone of this post is downright dreary, we the public can still take action to restore net neutrality rules. Basically, it comes down to fighting Chairman Pai on two fronts:
We can lobby Congress to pass “net neutrality” legislation. Any action the FCC takes on classifying Internet service providers—as common carriers or information services—can be rendered moot through legislation. It might take until after the 2018 midterm elections to get this done, but legislation is the only way to guarantee an open Internet for the long term.
Take the FCC to court. This is less than ideal because it must protect net neutrality rules within the current legal framework, which is not very specific about net neutrality. Nonetheless, Free Press plans to file a lawsuit against the FCC. I don’t know their legal strategy, but it might be on the grounds that the FCC has unlawfully abdicated its authority over the Internet. A lawsuit would likely lead to an injunction to keep the current net-neutrality rules in place. After that, prevailing in court could keep the Internet open, but as I wrote above, legislation is the best way to do it.
We’ve been expecting the single, unlimited broadband package to go away someday—either through throttling your connection speed or by capping the amount of data you send and receive each month. What might happen now is there could be at least two tiers of broadband service:
a discounted AOL-type service where you get unlimited access to the content on that service
a prohibitively expensive rate for a somewhat open service, like what we have now
At any rate, Chairman Pai is basically giving the monopolistic Internet service providers the opportunity to become all-in-one information services. Remember most of America has no choice in Internet service providers and unlike in the past, when there was a national telephone monopoly and local cable TV monopoly, the government provided some level of protections against monopolistic behavior. Not anymore.
It really seems like the Internet will again be like AOL. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
The corporate lapdogs at the Federal Communications Commission are to announce this week—the week of the Thanksgiving holiday the United States—their scheduled vote on December 15 to eliminate the “net neutrality” rules that govern wired broadband Internet providers.
The timing of the announcement and of the scheduled vote is not accidental. The FCC is trying to sneak the announcement during a holiday week when the country is distracted and will take the vote on a Friday before the FCC commissioners presumably adjourn for 2017. As we know, because of Donald Trump, the FCC has three business-friendly Republican commissioners that will out vote the two Democratic commissioners. There’s every reason to expect the vote to be a mere formality.
Karl Bode posted a great essay on Techdirt about the vote predicting a strong public backlash against the FCC’s vote to kill net neutrality rules. I won’t reproduce his argument here, but I want to draw attention to the two reasons he foresees a revolt. First, the public overwhelming supports these rules because, as with the broadband consumer privacy protections the Senate killed earlier this year, this is not a partisan issue. Hardcore lefties and righties want these protective rules. Second, these rules will largely benefit broadband Internet providers: i.e., the deep-pocketed cable and telephone companies that rank among the most hated companies in America. Much like the Republican tax plans currently debated in both chambers of Congress, the benefits will go to the wealthiest and most powerful segments in our country. The rest of us will get screwed.
However, unlike Bode, I am less optimistic about a coming public revolt against this FCC and the broadband companies they are supposed to protect the public against. A lot of people don’t understand what net neutrality even is, much less other related concepts such as common carriage that are arguably more meaningful and noticeable to people on a day-to-day basis. The most immediate effect of ending net neutrality will be preferential treatment of partner services. As we’ve already seen, Netflix is fine with partnering with ISPs to ensure a clear path for its streaming video service. As long as people can still stream video on Netflix and Amazon, no one will really notice that their Internet will no longer be an open-platform.
Of course, the long-term effect will be much greater, even if its harder to identify. That’s because the next generation of Internet companies will have a harder time emerging. Someone might develop something we can’t even imagine yet that could threaten Netflix and Amazon’s dominance the same way each company all but eliminated the Blockbuster Video stores that profited with usurious late fees and the major chain bookstores that forced many independents out of business decades. But we won’t probably will never see those competitors emerge and, even worse, we may never even know they existed in the first place.
The votes that Chairman Pai has brought to the FCC over his first year as the Commission’s chairman benefit incumbents over future innovative upstarts. While this may have a short-term benefit for the large companies that employ thousands of workers and trade on the Dow Jones stock exchange, as Verizon, Comcast, and AT&T do, these actions will cost us in the long-term in lost innovation. The Internet communications revolution in the United States didn’t come from incumbent telecommunications companies. It originated from military, government, and university researchers working together—often in their spare time. Had we left it up to AT&T or RCA, our Internet would basically be AOL and what Sprint called the “wireless web.” As someone who remembers both these versions of the “Internet,” I wish I had never known they existed in the first place.
John Oliver did it again. Two nights ago, on Last Week Tonight, he covered net neutrality, explaining it in an accessible way, and advocating everyone to visit the FCC’s website to comment on the proposed rules.
While Oliver explains a lot of reasons why net neutrality is important, it might be better to see this from the perspective of Title I vs. Title II. Oliver offered to contrast it, but the explanation comparing the difference between the two didn’t materialize. Nevertheless, it might be helpful to think about Title I vs. Title II in these terms:
Title I is an information service. A cable company operates under Title I because the cable company curates the channel lineup and offers a package of television channels. Users have little choice in what channels they get, aside from choosing a tier of channels.
Title II is a common carrier utility. A landline telephone company operates under Title II because it doesn’t not select or curate your phone calls. It simply connects one telephone to another.
Most of us think of our Internet service provider as a common carrier. We subscribe to one ISP versus another based on a few factors: upload and download speeds, reliability, and price. We don’t do so because of “exclusive content” or any synergistic nonsense like that. With any ISP, we expect to reach any website, connect any device, and run almost any application.
On the other hand, we think of major platforms on the Internet, such as Facebook or Google, as an information service. However, no one relies on only one of these platforms. Remember when Facebook partnered with HTC to make a “Facebook Phone?” It was a disaster because no one wants to live in this walled garden, even if we might spend a lot of time there.
We have only had net neutrality for two years, but we must keep it because we don’t want our Internet service providers to become an information service.
When an ISP acts like an information service, we get something like we had with America Online (AOL). Today, most people shudder when I mention AOL because think of slow dialup connections and the shrieking modem-handshake sound. But honestly, what made AOL so bad was that it was your internet service provider and your content provider, and while it was easy to use, it was really bad. It was not only a walled garden, like Facebook today, but unlike Facebook, you paid by-the-hour while you were on AOL. I don’t think any consumer wants to go back to these days.
You don’t want to know how much you had to pay after AOL’s free 700 hours.
The same is true for wireless. The iPhone was revolutionary, not only as a mobile computing device, but because Apple insisted that it have complete control over the hardware: the wireless carrier could not install any software nor brand the phone. The iPhone was a success in part because Apple relegated AT&T to the role of a wireless common carrier, keeping them from acting like an information service.
I certainly remember this was not the case with some of my old phones, such as a Sprint-branded phone that I got in 2001, that came with the “wireless web.” It was basically an AOL-like service provided by Sprint that had local weather, news, and sports scores. It sucked. The only redeeming feature of this service was that it allowed you to enter a URL, and there were a handful of sites that offered mobile WAP sites, largely because of the success of Palm handhelds.
This was the Web on a Sprint PCS Wireless Phone, circa 2001.
The one thing that Pai gets right about “net neutrality” is that is a confusing term. But in this case, let there be no confusion. Internet service providers are by their very nature common carriers. That’s how they market themselves, that’s why consumers subscribe to one ISP versus another, and that’s how the Internet as we know it has flourished in the last decade and a half. Moving ISPs to Title I—as information services—will invite those ISPs to become gatekeepers and walled gardens that stymie innovation. Let’s not go back to the days when “surfing the web” meant scrolling through a mobile “wireless web” browser’s menu or, heaven forbid, entering AOL keywords.
The New York Attorney General’s office is asking the public to test its broadband speeds to determine whether customers are getting the advertised speeds to all network services.
The test measures the connection to several different CDNs to determine whether those connections are “healthy” enough to be considered “network neutral.” If a connection to a particular CDN is consistently too fast (or too slow), it could lead investigators to learn whether an ISP is deliberately accelerating traffic to its partners or debilitating the throughput as an anti-competitive measure.
Unlike voting, you are encouraged to take this test frequently to help provide the AG’s office with more data on the health of those connections.
The above link to Amazon is an affiliate link. If you buy something that link, I will earn a commission fee.
The price for the current Apple TV dropped to $69. This third-generation model has been on the market since 2012 and was available for $99 as recently as this past weekend. I imagine that this is an intermediate move on Apple’s part. There are clearly better options for OTT streaming devices, even for die-hard Apple nerds, and I would hope Apple plans to release an improved version in the near future for the $70 same price. (Or not… what do I know?)
HBO Now will launch exclusively on Apple devices for $15 per month. In some ways, this move is big because it marks the first time HBO is available without a multichannel TV subscription and could be a threat to multichannel TV as we know it. Consumers begged HBO to offer something like this, and now we know that it will be a full-featured service, not a crippled version that only the pay TV subscribers get.
In my most recent New Media class, I addressed the second announcement as an example of a technology adapting to our needs. We were discussing how social network sites were great for, you know, networking socially. Facebook has been great for sharing with your nearby friends, distant classmates, and obsessively doting relatives. After a while, though, we learned that our unsavory activities, such as our party pics, can be found by a potential employer, a college recruiter, or that human you are trying to date. The sharing aspect of Facebook is great, but the permanence is not. So, we now have something like Snapchat, and that is where we share indiscriminately because of its evanescence. We found a technology that better suited a particular need.
HBO Now is intended to provide stream HBO to those without pay TV subscriptions. But a lot of people I know already stream HBO programming with HBO Go. They just use someone else’s credentials to access it. As intrepid cord cutters, we already figured out how to get the product we need without HBO offering it. I’m not going to guess whether HBO Now is going to succeed. It could be a decade-long lifeline as iTunes was for the music industry or it could be as negligible as News Corp making an iPad-native Daily newsmagazine.
The Technology We Deserve
Net Neutrality plays an important role with this OTT service. Chris Morran at Consumerist speculates about the power of an ISP without net neutrality rules, where one could theoretically “throttle HBO Now while still allowing HBO Go to get through at full speed, effectively saying that the only way to get a decent HBO streaming service is if you have a cable package.” But with net neutrality rules, the two services should operate at the same level of performance. I won’t need to have my TV polluted with reality TV shows and shitty reruns in order to watch The Wire in 1080p.
The only not-neutral thing about the HBO Now service is that it will initially launch on only Apple devices, such as Apple TV, iPad, and iPhone. Roku, Amazon Fire, and Chromecast users will have to miss out on Game of Thrones until midsummer. Perhaps Mark Cuban was right when he said that we shouldn’t worry about the power of ISPs and that instead we should “worry about Google and Apple” because they make the operating systems of our mobile devices.
The Technology We Don’t Need
A few years ago, only the most devoted Internet libertarians were cognizant of that an ISP could potentially throttle or block a service it didn’t “like.” Today, even casual Internet users are skeptical about the control their ISP could potentially wield. For example, after the HBO Now announcement, Comcast subscribers were unable to access the http://hbonow.com website. It turns out that it was a technical problem caused by a DNS issue on HBO’s part, not some sinister shenanigans at the hands of Comcast. But because everyone hates their cable companies and because Comcast is as big as a cable company gets, the Internet reflexively blamed Comcast.
It’s hard to shed a tear for Comcast though. As I mentioned earlier, when a technology fails to meet our needs or desires, we move on to something else. Cable television as we know it evolved from two converging technologies: Community Antenna TV and satellite cable.2 CATV was a demand-side technology. Starting in the 1940s, CATV operators piped TV signals to TV set owners living in areas where an over-the-air signal wasn’t available. CATV was almost a necessity for people living in a valley, such as in rural Pennsylvania, or in densely populated and overbuilt area, such as Manhattan, because the terrain blocked the radio signals necessary for TV reception. Satellite cable, on the other hand, was a supply-side technology. Beginning in the 1970s, it allowed national distribution for emerging television channels, such as Ted Turner’s WTBS-TV in Atlanta and the Manhattan-based Home Box Office. In both cases, CATV and satellite cable—eventually merging as the modern cable TV industry—enabled TV viewers to get what the broadcasters were failing to provide them. Today, however, the cable companies are the ones failing to provide us what we want, and that’s why we’ve migrated to something that does.
And, I’m sorry, Apple. As of right now, I still can’t figure out why I need a smartwatch.
The above link to Amazon is an affiliate link. If you buy something that link, I will earn a commission fee.
It’s been an exciting week for Internet advocacy in the United States. To put it in crude, succinct, and kinda androcentric-and-infantilizing terms, the Federal Communications Commission grew a pair and ruled to…
prohibit restrictions against community broadband, such as those in Chattanooga, Tennessee and Wilson, North Carolina, where they get faster and cheaper Internet access than in New York City.
Everyone has gone gaga over the first ruling, but I think the second one is just as crucial. Why? If net neutrality is “Obamacare for the Internet,” community broadband is the “public option” we didn’t get with the Affordable Care Act. It subjects commercial ISPs to competition that is primarily concerned with serving its citizens rather than enriching its shareholders.
The commercial ISPs have complained that if they were subject to Title II common carriage regulation, they would be less inclined to invest in their infrastructure. They would be less likely to expand access, and they would be less likely to increase broadband speeds in the coming years. In other words, they would act like a telecommunications monopoly with little incentive to improve their product. Guess what? They already behave that way.
Throughout the twentieth century, AT&T, the telephone monopoly in the US, improved the technology to connect local and long-distance calls more efficiently, but the end-product was more or less unchanged for seven decades. AT&T held a monopoly over US telephone service beginning in 1913, under the Kingsbury Commitment, until 1984, when it was forced to fragment and sell its local exchanges into seven regional Baby Bells. In that time, there were very few functional improvements to the telephone receiver.
A very old AT&T phone from the 1930s.
A phone that would be a common sight in the United States.
Comparing two receivers—one from the 1930s and one from the 1980s—it’s hard to tell what specific improvements there were. Both receivers consisted of a dial and a corded handset, and you could have one in any color you wanted… as long as you wanted black. Why was there no speakerphone? Where is the touchtone keypad? Why couldn’t someone put a call on hold or mute the receiver? If someone missed a call, why couldn’t the phone indicate so with a notification? And, why could someone not walk around any further than the length of the receiver’s cord?
The Carterphone from the late 1960s allowed telephone users to bypass the telephone cord.
The key reason why AT&T did not innovate and improve its product for the consumer was not because it was closely regulated as a utility and that it had to provide universal access, it was because it was a monopoly and no had little incentive to innovate. It was not until the 1980s that consumers were finally able to connect foreign attachments to their telephones, such as answering machines and modems, purchase their own phones, including cordless and touchtone devices, and choose their own long-distance telephone provider and calling plan.
Touchtone “dialing” finally arrives in the 1980s. Was that really so hard?
In other words, with viable competition in underserved markets, commercial ISPs will be forced to, in the words of countless entrepreneurial free-marketeers, “innovate or die.”
Updated because the new WordPress for iOS app turned my Markdown into HTML. Yuck.