Please defend net neutrality:
It provides your family with innovative educational content...and makes it possible for websites like Parenting Science to exist

© 2017 GWEN DEWAR, PH.D., ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Net neutrality -- the principle that once you pay for access to the internet, you have equal access to all lawful content on the web -- is under threat in the United States.

The FCC chairman plans to eliminate net neutrality rules on December 14th, 2017.

How might this affect your ability to access this website? How might it affect your ability to access other independent content creators on the internet?

I don't usually write about topics like this. This isn't a tech blog. But the FCC's actions could make Parenting Science unviable. Indeed, the dismantling of net net neutrality rules could put many of your favorite content creators out of business, and stifle innovation in the future.

So it seems stupid not to share the news with my readers, many of whom live in the United States.

If you aren't familiar with the details -- or if you think this is mostly an issue concerning your monthly internet service bill -- I beg you to please learn more. In addition to the many articles you will find on tech websites like CNET and WIRED, you can watch this 6-minute video by Science Studio, this 2-minute, less detailed video by Vimeo, or read my own account below.

Then -- if you are one of my U.S. readers -- please make your feelings known to your representatives in Congress. As I note below, phone calls might be the most effective way to get your message across (second only to a face-to-face meeting). Battle for the Net can help you connect to your representatives if you call this number: 202-930-8550.

Whatever you choose to do, thank you for taking the time to learn more and think it over.

What's this about?

Internet service providers, or ISPs, are the middlemen of the internet. They ferry data back and forth between internet users and content creators. Under current rules, ISPs can't block legal content, and they can't selectively slow the traffic to any particular website. They can't selectively speed up websites they like, own, or receive money from.

On December 14, 2017, the chairman of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is planning to dismantle these rules. This would allow ISPs to radically change the way the internet works.

Let's consider what the FCC's plan means for you, as an internet user.

1. Lifting the current rules would mean that your ISP could block websites like this one. 

You wouldn't be able to access it. I would lose visitors. In effect, the ISP would be free to censor websites, even if they were breaking no laws.

2. Lifting the current rules would mean that your ISP could selectively slow down websites like this one. 

The ISP could do this at my end -- the website owner's end -- so that no matter how fast your personal internet connection is, things would slow down when you visit my site.

3. Lifting the current rules would mean that ISPs could also favor websites they own or do business with, and they could penalize competitors. 

For example, Comcast currently has a controlling interest in the NBC network. Without net neutrality rules, Comcast could make it easier for its internet customers to visit NBC-owned websites, and harder to visit other news and information websites.

4. Lifting the current rules would mean that ISPs could sell websites access to internet "fast lanes," charging fees to website owners that only bigger, wealthier companies could pay. 

Website owners with deep pockets -- media giants, large businesses, and wealthy individuals -- would have a tremendous advantage. 

Others -- unable to pay -- would be relegated to the slow lane.

For the first time, the internet wouldn't be a playing field where everyone -- even individual bloggers and organizations with little money -- had an equal opportunity to build an audience. Instead, those with money could dominate. Small-time operators could be shut down; new start-ups could be shut out. You'd have fewer choices, fewer alternatives to the offerings of big business and the major media.

Why would this happen?

5. For websites, slow speed is a killer. It could put your favorite independent creators out of business.

When users perceive websites to be slow, they abandon them. Google and Amazon have tested their own websites and learned the difference that even a fraction of a second can make. 

And industry analysts report that people become increasingly likely to abandon a website the longer it takes to load. In one analysis, Decibel Insights (2016) found that users who encountered slow loading were 80% more likely to leave after that first click -- a behavior  known as "bouncing."

Moreover, research shows that slow download times make a website seem less credible to visitors (Fogg et al 2002).

So being relegated to the slow lane would mean an immediate loss of visitors. But this is only the beginning of the trouble, because search engines like Google penalize websites with high bounce rates.

Like many websites, Parenting Science gets most of its traffic from people who are seeking specific information. They look up keywords, like "newborn sleep," and discover one of my pages because Google ranks it highly in the search results.

But search engines are less likely to include a page in the top rankings if it has a high bounce rate. Thus, if websites like this one are put in the slow lane, we should expect their pages will sink in the search engine rankings. Internet users like you -- who discover new online content by searching for keywords -- will be less likely to discover these pages.

The favored "fast lane" websites will tend to dominate your search results, and all the rest -- all the alternative, independent sites out there -- could be pushed into obscurity.

It's like covering the exterior of a restaurant with construction scaffolding and digging up the sidewalk. The website become invisible to visitors. Traffic dries up. The business dies.

This would be bad for innovation, the free flow of ideas, and diversity.

The takeaway

The FCC's proposed dismantling of net neutrality rules could result in your favorite web content being censored or slowed. It could potentially devastate small businesses, and prevent new ones from ever getting off the ground. Even manufacturing businesses could be affected, because of the internet of things. If a manufacturer's product requires internet access for software updates, it could find itself subject to the whims of various ISPs.

And all this could happen even if your ISP doesn't change the way it bills you for its services. But that could change, too. 

Without the current net neutrality rules in place, internet providers could impose a sliding scale of fees depending on which website(s) you want to access. For illustration, see this Forbes blog post by Steven Salzberg, professor of Biomedical engineering and computer science at John Hopkins.

But aren't there two sides to the story?

Of course. For example, the ISPs say that charging for "fast lanes" would create profits they could invest in building infrastructure.  But there is more than one way to encourage investment in infrastructure, and the benefits of net neutrality affect people of all political persuasions. Everyone has something to lose if net neutrality is dismantled.

Before the rise of the internet, mass communications were controlled by big corporations and wealthy individuals. If you wanted to get a message out, you had to persuade these powerful interests that it was newsworthy, important, or financially rewarding to cover your story.

Today, net neutrality permits individuals to reach an audience, whether or not the major media think they have something worthwhile to communicate. It gives you a fair chance at building an audience even if you lack money or the sponsorship of someone powerful. And even if you aren't interested in using the internet as a producer, you benefit by having a wider array of information and content available.

That includes your favorite niche sites and communication platforms. It includes the many, innovative, free educational resources on the internet. Khan Academy, SciShow, CrashCourse? TED talks and TED-Ed?  Scratch programming for kids? These projects owe their origins to an open internet, and reach people today thanks to net neutrality. As Barbara Stripling, former President of the American Library Association once wrote, school and public libraries rely on an open internet for affordable access to educational content.

And even something as fundamental as your community's ability to disseminate local news could be in trouble. According to an analysis by the Stanford Center for Internet and Society, dismantling net neutrality rules will put local news outlets at risk.  

Why not let the free market determine things? If consumers don't like the practices of an ISP, they can take their business elsewhere, right?

There are two major problems with this.

First, in many parts of the United States, there is only one high speed, broadband internet service provider. Customers don't have a choice.

Second, even in places where there are two or more ISPs, they might all face similar incentives to discriminate. If major media organizations and wealthy website owners are willing to pay for "fast lane" status, ISPs may calculate there is little advantage in offering consumers an internet without such fast lanes.

Even if consumers want a level playing field for websites -- even if consumers were  willing to pay higher internet service fees to get it -- they might not be able to pay enough to rival what ISPs could make by selling favors to wealthy websites.

And of course some internet users wouldn't be able to pay for a level playing field. They could get priced out, and find themselves having to make do with a budget package featuring a subset of websites.

But do we really need the current rules? Didn't the internet work fine before these rules were adopted?

The current rules were adopted in 2015, but this wasn't the first time the FCC enforced net neutrality rules. For example, in 2005, the FCC successfully restrained an ISP from blocking one internet business and favoring another.

But the ISPs sued the FCC in federal court, arguing that the FCC didn't have the authority to enforce net neutrality rules. The courts agreed, ruling in 2014 that the FCC didn't have the power to enforce its rules against broadband ISPs, not unless these companies were reclassified as "common carriers" under Title II of the Communications Act.

This is what prompted the FCC to adopt the current rules. The FCC re-classified ISPs as common carriers, making it possible for the FCC to re-establish its authority and enforce the net neutrality rules we've discussed -- no blocking, no throttling of traffic, no favoritism or paid fast lanes.

Now, the newly-appointed FCC Chairman plans to throw out the re-classification of ISPs, along with the rest of the rules. As a result, we'd be in new territory. The FCC would no longer be able to act as it did before 2014. You can read more about this history in this article from WIRED.

What about legislation? Can't we replace the FCC rules with federal laws?

I think most people would agree that we need legislation to protect net neutrality -- not rules that can change every time the FCC gets a new chair. But if, like me, you favor legislation, I would say this: 

Please don't allow the FCC to dismantle their net neutrality rules until after such legislation is in place.

And keep in mind that money -- in the form of campaign donations from ISPs -- is involved. It will likely influence the way Congress reacts. If you'd like to know how much your lawmaker has received over the years, see this report from The Verge.

So what can I do if I want to stop the FCC from dismantling net neutrality rules? 

If you're in the United States, you can contact the politicians who represent you in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. They aren't members of the FCC, but the Congressional Review Act gives Congress the ability to reverse changes that the FCC makes to its own rules. Let politicians know what you, the voters, think.

former congressional staffer recommends that calling the district (State) office is the most effective way to register your opinion with a legislator (second only to meeting face-to-face). She emphasizes the importance of being polite to staff. They are the ones who will relay your message! You will probably get voicemail, so be prepared to leave a concise message. Email messages are helpful too.

Another step is to send a message to the three FCC members who plan to vote for the dismantling of net neutrality rules -- Chairman Ajit Pai, Commissioner Michael O'Reilly, and Commissioner Brendan Carr.

Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, one of two members who wants to protect net neutrality, believes her colleagues should "hold hearings around the country to get a better sense of how the public feels about the proposal." She advises the public to "reach out to the rest of the FCC now" and share their views.

Finally, please spread the word to others, and urge them to contact their elected officials and the FCC. Social media might not be the medium most likely to sway politicians. But it's an excellent way to reach people who share your concerns, and who can make their own phone calls.

References

Follow the links to the sources cited above. In addition, I cited this these sources:

Decibel Insight. 2016. The Impact of Load Time on User Behavior across Devices A Decibel Insight Study. DecibelInsight.com.

Fogg BJ,  Kameda T, Boyd J, Marshall J,  Sethi R,  Sockol M, and Trowbridge T. 2002. Stanford-Makovsky Web Credibility Study 2002: Investigating what makes Web sites credible today. A Research Report by the Stanford Persuasive Technology Lab & Makovsky & Company. Stanford University.

Image of computer and tablet users by rawpixel.com / public domain

Image of kids using computer by Tim & Selena Middleton / flickr 




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