What is net neutrality?

I am really struggling with the issue of “net neutrality”.  The recent repeal by Trump’s Federal Communications Commission of the Obama FCC’s net neutrality rule has brought us back to the status quo as it existed in 2015.  I am hearing calls for Massachusetts to step in and pass its own net neutrality rule.

Obviously, I am opposed to anything that threatens free speech. The First Amendment protects us from government restrictions on free speech. But in the new age of the Internet it feels like corporations might limit our free speech. So to the extent that “net neutrality” means assuring freedom of speech on the internet, I am 100% for it.

But, I think that those of us who care about Internet free speech might actually be getting played by the major content providers on the “net neutrality” issue.

Ostensibly, the bad guys that we are trying to regulate are players like Comcast and Verizon who own the connections to our homes. We are afraid that they might block, throttle, or overcharge certain content providers. We fear that they might impede content providers that they dislike politically.

It certainly is true that broadband providers like Comcast and Verizon do have enormous power in some areas where they have monopolies on broadband delivery.

But in reality, as someone who is in the business of trying to communicate with people, I am most afraid of Google and Facebook. They are the companies that control whether my message gets out.

For example, if Gmail decides that my political communication emails are just spam, then a huge chunk of the population just won’t hear from me.  I live in real fear of that possibility. And I work hard to avoid it.

And Facebook actively censors speech. For example, recently, I wanted to post a Facebook ad to my political supporters that mentioned by work on marijuana legalization. Facebook refused to publish the ad because their robots determined that it was an offer to sell marijuana.   I had to appeal up a couple of levels before a human being did the right thing.

Apart from direct censorship, both Facebook and Google wield spectacular power through their ranking of content — if one appears on the second page of Google searches or far down in the Facebook newsfeed, one will rarely get seen.  Everyone who seeks to widely disseminate political or commercial speech today spends much of their time thinking about how to rise in the content rankings.

By contrast, I have never had to worry about any limits on my ability to communicate imposed by local cable providers.  And, until I started hearing about “net neutrality” it never crossed my mind to worry about it.

As far as I can tell, the net neutrality fight is really a fight between the big content providers, especially those that warehouse and stream a lot of video content, and the cable providers.

Over last few years, as broadband fast enough to stream video has become widespread, a few big companies like Facebook, Google/YouTube, Apple and Netflix have become the primary sources of Internet traffic. Webpages like mine are tiny compared to video recordings sent over the Internet.

As video has become more popular, there has been congestion or the possibility of congestion for local cable providers. The local cable providers may seek through paid prioritization to charge the big video providers for the cost of upgrading their local infrastructure. The big video providers have raised the flag of free speech to create political pressure on their side of that bargaining process.

I would really welcome input from people about what they think the real problem is. To me, the scariest thing is the prospect of censorship by Facebook and Google who make their money by regulating and targeting content.   I’m much less worried about the people who own the pipes, the cable providers, screening political content.

I do think it is a problem that many areas have only one broadband provider so there is no local competition. The more competition there is among broadband providers, the better off we will all be.

In addition to the question of what the real problem is, I’m interested in people’s sense of whose problem it is to fix.  What jurisdiction and capacity do states have to act on this issue?

If you know of good resources on the issue, please do share them.  I’ll pull them up into the list below.

Comments Read and Closed — continue discussion under Part II

I’ve read through all of these comments and I greatly appreciate them — very helpful. Please visit next post on net neutrality and we can continue the conversation there.

Published by Will Brownsberger

Will Brownsberger is State Senator from the Second Suffolk and Middlesex District.

69 replies on “What is net neutrality?”

  1. One way to fix the problem of ISPs loading the dice is for communities to roll their own by installing municipal fiber networks, as some have done. (Not sure, but I believe Cambridge may be contemplating such a project.) However, I’ve heard of GOP-controlled state legislatures that, prompted by industry, have passed laws to forbid public ownership of such facilities. So to me, the problem we are addressing is not net neutrality per se but the varied consequences of pay-to-play politics under monopoly capitalism.

  2. THE CONCEPT IS THE AMERICAN DREAM OF ALL BEING ACCORDED WITH THE SAME OPERTUNIETY. IF YOU LOOK AT REALIETY, THE SYSTEM WAS WORKING VERY WELL BEFOR THIS POLICY WAS INTRODUCED. I FAIL TO SEE WHAT HAS BEEN ACCOMPLICED UNDER THE NET EXCEPT TO ADD A ADDITIONAL BUROCRATIC HARDSHIP TO BOTH PROVIDERS AND RECIPIENTS OF THE SERVICES. I THINK THE AMERICAN PEOPLE CAN MAKE THEIR OWNE CHOICES AND THE FREE MARKED WILL TAKE CARE OF THE PROBLEMS. RICHARD

  3. Hiawatha Bray, a Globe tech writer for the Globe gets to the nub of the push for “net neutrality” in his May 17 column.

    Writing about the internet since 1994, Bray writes that despite the claims of the advocates that they want an insurance policy against corporate censorship and a “fair and free internet”:, more aggressive advocates want the FCC to dictate every decision made by our broadband providers.
    Moreover, the former chairman of the FCC, decided to regulate the internet under title II of the Federal Communications Act of 1934. That Act regulated telephone monopolies. Title II allows the FCC to “micromanage” all aspects of broadband providers activity.
    While title II would make providers protect the privacy of users, it would not apply to tech giant, Google, or Facebook. Rates for broadband service would also be regulated to prevent”price Gouging.”
    With title II in place, much more aggressive regulations can follow. They would lead to less innovation and investment.
    According to Bray”, if Congress wants to solve the Net Neutrality problem, it could pass a simple law banning blocking and throttling of data of data on broadband networks, then take the rest of the day off.”
    I couldn’t agree more with Bray.

  4. On the contrary, the FCC did have a net neutrality policy that was overturned by the courts on procedural grounds. That forced them to use Title II (which made sense anyway, since the internet is a common carrier if anything ever was). Now that that has been repealed, we no longer have any net neutrality policy. But I agree that Google and Facebook are excellent candidates for a federal antitrust lawsuit (if there are any prosecutors left who still know how it’s done).

  5. Hi Will:
    I think the Obama White House got under the lobbying spell of the big content providers. They are the only ones who benefit from “Net Neutrality”. In Arlington, we are fortunate to have had three broadband providers, RCN, Verizon and Comcast.

    The only reason we could get this choice is because the bandwidth providers could charge for their bandwidth. If I just use the net for email, and my neighbor is bingeing on Netflix all day, I don’t want to be paying for their bandwidth use.

    But Netflix wants net neutrality so that their service is paid for by everyone, whether or not they use it. If you use the Mass Pike more, you pay more tolls. If you drive more, you pay more for fuel.

    Google, Facebook, Netflix and other big content providers don’t want their customer dollars going for bandwidth, but only for their content.

    Now, I am not shedding tears for Verizon, Comcast and the like, they are adult players. However, the carrier market is competitive – not only with hardwire or cable but also with wireless.

    When the new 5G wireless is implemented, it may make cable or fiber look slow. But that deployment will only come if the carriers can get a return on their investment. That is why a lot of rural areas don’t have high speed networks, because there is not enough business to pay for the infrastructure.

    The pre- Net Neutrality days created immense innovation in our IP networks. The Obama administration pushed us back into the pre-1980’s telephone-like regulations. Do you remember when we had only one telephone carrier? It was horrible.

    Thanks for giving careful thought to this complex subject.

    1. This is not what net neutrality is about.

      Net neutrality does not prohibit internet service providers from charging for bandwidth use. Rather, it prohibits internet service providers from discriminating between different sources of that bandwidth.

      Note that the cable and cell phone companies have never stopped having different pricing tiers for different levels of bandwidth use. If net neutrality were what you claim — which it isn’t — then they would have had to stop doing that when the FCC’s net neutrality policy went into effect. They didn’t, because the FCC didn’t say that they had to, because net neutrality isn’t what you’re saying it is.

  6. Thanks once again for the amount of homework you offer us as food for thought.

    Your instincts and worries about Google and Facebook being the primary dangers are convincing to me, but at the same time I believe both the State and the Federal legislatures should address the issues of monopolies by any owner of the distribution “pipes” like Comcast and Verizon (or others like ATT, RCN, etc. … if I’m not mistaken in thinking of them as owners of “pipes”).

    Monopolies are not in the public’s best interest. Suzanne quoted Hiawatha Bray below that passing a simple “law banning blocking and throttling of data of data on broadband networks”. A Massachusetts law would not address monopolies, but it would help keep the “pipes” open.

    Regulating or prescribing what content rises to the top of feeds by Google, Facebook and others is the age-old issue of censorship vs. freedom of information flows. I believe is is a mistake to hope that companies who are in the business of finding recipients of information will self-regulate. By the same token, government regulation or legislation of what can and cannot be passed on to the public is also a mistake. I wonder whether education of the public is the only reasonable answer, or the increase in public interest groups who would/could act as public monitors of info content – not with the powers to censor, but with the clear and conflict-free responsibility to alert the public that one or the other (or all) of the content providers are remiss in not creating better internal screening of the content they pass on. (If this is old hat for others, forgive me please, I’m new to the debate).

  7. You’re right that facebook and google have a lot of power, but consider how much more they would have without net neutrality.

    Today, there are a few social networks, and you can use any or all of them to distribute your message. If facebook declines to publish your ad, you can publish it on twitter or instagram and reach many of the same people. If any of them start to practice anything that looks to the public like censorship, then they will quickly find themselves to be irrelevant and replaced. Gmail is very popular, but many people use other services, and it’s very easy to switch. You can host your own website and put just about any kind of messaging that you want on it.

    Without net neutrality, the major content providers would lose out on some revenue, but would be much stronger gate keepers. If comcast sold the internet the same way they sell cable, by bundling websites like they bundle channels, then we would be in an even worse position. Google and facebook’s content decisions would affect everybody, and there would be no other option. It is unlikely that willbrownsberger.com would be included in any of the packages.

    The content providers have power because they have lots of users, but those users are free to come and go as they please. The ISPs have power because our government limits who is allowed to install fiber optic cables in the public rights of way, and we have very little choice in the matter.

  8. HI Will,

    Thank you for laying out in a very clear way what you see the issues as being…or not.

    I agree I am not too worried about the providers of the internet as of the Goggle’s and Facebooks of the world.

    The reality is the cable providers are kind of like a utility. As much as there is regulation on electric companies etc… it still feels as they charge what they believe they need and raise or lower rates based on demand. I don’t really have an issue with Internet providers doing the same.

    Of course, the best way to keep pricing competitive is by competition. The more providers, the better. Take a look at RCN’s rates compared to Verizon DSL or Xfinity…

    Competition doesn’t mean the lowest price, but value added to the consumer.

    Regarding the Facebooks etc, they are private companies. Government interference is not the solution.
    I am not sure what is however your example about running an ad that was rejected, that could just as well happen in the Boston Globe.

    I appreciate your thoughtful consideration as our legislator and thanks for your hard work.

  9. I think the change inner neutrality is scary. Thee cable companies might make it difficult but I don’t know. What I know is I trust Obama more than Trump. And I like the sound of net neutrality

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