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Two Years Later, Broadband Providers Are Still Taking Advantage of An Internet Without Net Neutrality Protections

December 10, 2019 , , , , ,

This December marks the two-year anniversary of the Federal Communications Commission’s vote to repeal the 2015 Open Internet Order and the agency’s net neutrality consumer protections. Even though 86 percent of Americans support net neutrality and opposed the reversal, two years ago the FCC chose to side with the major broadband providers over consumers regarding who controls access to internet content, and consumers are experiencing the grave effects of that choice. 

Earlier this year Public Knowledge detailed some of the ways broadband providers have been quietly taking advantage of an internet without net neutrality protections and where the FCC has no legal authority to police harmful conduct by broadband providers. These examples included Sprint throttling internet traffic to Microsoft’s Skype, a service that competes with Sprint’s calling service; Verizon’s throttling of services that affected the Santa Clara County Fire Department’s ability to provide emergency services during the California wildfires; and other examples that show how broadband providers have used the lack of net neutrality rules to their advantage to profit from slowing down certain types of internet traffic and favoring certain types of content. Some supporters of the repeal justify the FCC’s action by claiming that the internet did not slow to a crawl or cease to exist, hence net neutrality protections and FCC oversight of broadband providers is unnecessary. The truth is, without net neutrality protections, the internet is slowly changing to favor the decisions of major broadband providers over consumers, and broadband providers continue to take advantage:

  • Consumers’ real-time location data originating from cell phone providers, including T-Mobile, AT&T, and Sprint, is being sold to bounty hunters and others. Domestic abusers have used the easy availability of this geolocation data to stalk current and former partners. This data is also being resold on the black market. According to these wireless companies, this use of data goes against the company’s policies, but when net neutrality rules were repealed, so too was the FCC’s authority to regulate broadband privacy.
  • Researchers from Northeastern University and University of Massachusetts Amherst found that almost all wireless carriers pervasively slow down internet speed for selected video streaming services. From early 2018 to early 2019, AT&T throttled Netflix 70% of the time as well as YouTube 74% of the time, but not Amazon Prime Video. T-Mobile throttled Amazon Prime Video in about 51% of the tests, but did not throttle Skype or Vimeo. While U.S. wireless carriers have long said they may slow video traffic on their networks to avoid congestion, one of the study’s authors, David Choffnes, explained that these carriers are throttling content “all the time, 24/7, and it’s not based on networks being overloaded.” No throttling internet traffic is a core net neutrality principle.  
  • Broadband provider Cox Communications is offering a “fast lane” for gamers who pay $15 more per month.” If net neutrality protections existed, broadband providers cannot set up “fast lanes”—also known as “paid prioritization”—to force users to pay more for prioritized access to the internet. 
  • Frontier Communications is charging its customers a $10 monthly modem rental fee even if they already own their modems. If users buy their own modem to avoid such fees, the ISP will still charge them as if they are renting one. The FCC used to have broadband oversight authority to address this problematic behavior, but without such authority, the FCC has told Congress that this is now the FTC’s problem to deal with. 

The purpose of having FCC oversight of broadband providers and net neutrality rules is to have an expert agency investigate these issues when they arise to ensure the internet remains open to everyone and that broadband providers do not abuse their consumers or take advantage of their power to determine what type of internet content gets seen. Net neutrality rules were created in order to protect the consumer’s ability to access all internet content equally rather than internet service providers deciding which websites to block, throttle, or prioritize and which to allow unfettered access. When implementing net neutrality rules, the Commission understood that internet providers (e.g. Comcast, Verizon) have profit motives and that large content providers (e.g. Netflix, Amazon Prime) can afford to pay for prioritization. As the cop on the beat, the FCC had the authority to step in if necessary to protect consumers. After the current FCC’s 2017 repeal of net neutrality and the agency’s oversight authority over broadband, consumers no longer have net neutrality protections or a federal agency ready to address harmful conduct by broadband providers, leading to the aforementioned examples of companies taking advantage of consumers, their wallets, and their data.  

Two years ago, upon repealing the net neutrality rules, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai gave a speech about all the wonderful things killing net neutrality would do. None of them have come true. For example, Chairman Pai said:

  • [The repeal] is not going to stifle free expression online.” But this is simply not true. As wireless carriers throttle certain content providers and not others, consumers are witnessing internet service providers stifle the free expression of certain content. The internet is a place where everyone can have a voice regardless of how much money they make, yet this premise is being threatened without net neutrality protections.For example, while some consumers and businesses can pay for internet “fast lanes,” those that cannot afford to will have their voices silenced. 
  • We are helping consumers and promoting competition. Broadband providers will have stronger incentives to build networks, especially in unserved areas.” This also has proven to be false. Rather than promoting competition, broadband providers now have carte blanche to prioritize their own content and throttle competing services. The repeal particularly harms small businesses who will not be able to pay for prioritization, and will likely be the targets of content throttling. Moreover, the promise of more network investment has not occurred (nor did net neutrality consumer protections lead to any decline in network investment). To the contrary, despite billions in tax breaks and a constant stream of deregulation from the FCC, broadband investment has not ticked up. AT&T announced it will cut its capital investment by $3 billion in 2020 and it has mostly stopped its fiber-to-the-home broadband construction. Verizon’s 2019 spending has been flat, and Comcast and Charter have not invested as much as previously estimated.
  • We also promote much more robust transparency among ISPs than existed three years ago.” This sentiment cannot be true in a world where a bounty hunter can pay for someone’s real-time geolocation data without the ISPs even knowing about it. Members of Congress and members of the FCC have been unable to get any update from the Chairman’s office on the investigation regarding the sale of location data.

From the start, transparency and increased investment as justifications for killing FCC authority and repealing net neutrality were nothing but a red herring. Cable and telco executives have long told Wall Street that net neutrality rules do not affect investment decisions. And remember, earlier this year BuzzFeed discovered that millions of fake net neutrality comments were submitted by groups working for broadband companies. 

The FCC’s repeal of net neutrality and abdication of oversight authority have been incredibly harmful to consumers. It is time for Congress to act and codify the net neutrality rules that were enacted in 2015. Earlier this year, the House passed Congressman Mike Doyle’s (D-PA) Save the Internet Act. Senator Markey (D-MA) introduced the companion bill in the Senate, and it has 45 cosponsors. However, it has been sitting idly in the Senate for months. If you care about net neutrality, call your Senators today and encourage them to pass the Save the Internet Act!

Image credit: Free Press Pics


About Lindsay Stern

Lindsay Stern is a Policy Fellow at Public Knowledge. Prior to joining PK, Lindsay was a legal intern at the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee in the office of Senator Dick Durbin, as well as at the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project, and Street Law, Inc. Lindsay received her J.D. from The George Washington University Law School, where she was a member of the Federal Circuit Bar Journal, and received her B.A. in Government at Franklin & Marshall College. She also spent a semester studying at the University of Edinburgh. Lindsay was born and raised in New York. She is a yoga and frozen yogurt enthusiast.