Last week Kyle Drake, the founder of web-hosting company NeoCities.org, got his hands on the block of Internet Protocol addresses associated with computers in the Federal Communications Commission’s Washington, DC offices. The IP addresses themselves aren’t secret – they would be shared with any site the computers interacted with online. But identifying them as a group allowed Drake to write certain instructions into his site’s code that limited any requests for access from an FCC computer to an upload rate of 28.8kbps, roughly the speed of an old dial-up modem.
In a blog post on his site, Drake offered to remove the throttle on FCC access for the price of $1,000 per year. He then made his code public, allowing other web sites to adopt a similar “rate limit” for visitors from the FCC.
Being locked out of speedy access to NeoCities is hardly a crippling blow, for the FCC, but Drake’s action was really meant to be a symbolic protest of the agency’s consideration of a rule that would effectively end what’s known as “net neutrality” as the default setting for the Internet. For decades, the Internet has operated under the assumption that all content is equal. In terms of priority delivery, it was a first-come, first-served system where my Tweet and your Facebook post received the same treatment.
Last month, though, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler announced that he would propose a rule allowing Internet Service Providers to sell priority access to certain content providers, while relegating all other traffic to a slower connection. Wheeler insisted that users would see no difference in their current level of service for companies that don’t pay the toll. Tech experts and net neutrality activists scoffed and the Internet community, to put it gently, blew up.
The policy of net neutrality is sacrosanct in the tech community. Start-ups unable to afford to pay the toll for fast-lane access, some argue, would never be able to disrupt established services, and innovation would be stifled. What’s more, allowing companies to decide what content gets better access reduces consumer choice. If your favorite webcast doesn’t have the funds to pay the toll, you might wind up with stop-and-go playback, while your neighbor has a smooth viewing experience with Charlie’s Angels reruns streamed by a well-funded content provider.
Drake’s rate-limiting code was hardly the only reaction to the FCC’s announcement. More than 100 major tech firms, including Internet giants like Google, Amazon, and Yahoo, all signed a letter decrying the proposal, as did 100 social welfare groups.
Activists supported by the group Fight for the Future, set up an Occupy Wall Street-style encampment across from FCC headquarters in Washington.
For a moment on Monday, it looked as though the protests had had their desired effect. Chairman Wheeler, it was announced, would submit a revised proposal for the planned vote on May 15. But when the details were revealed, activists saw little difference. In it, Wheeler continued to propose allowing the creation of fast lanes, but promised beefed up supervision of the regular access channels to make sure ISPs aren’t making traffic flow unreasonably slowly.
For net neutrality activists, this didn’t solve the basic problem of a two-tier Internet.
“We think it’s great that the chairman is acknowledging that the public is making a very large outcry against his rule,” said Tiffiniy Cheng, a co-director of Fight for the Future. “What he says…isn’t going to be enough.”
Cheng reported that FCC commissioner Ajit Pai stopped by the encampment to offer support to the protesters and the listen to their concerns. She added that FCC employees walking past the protesters “have been positive, have taken our materials, and say they are supportive.”
There may have been one flicker of hope for the protesters in the reports about the new Wheeler proposal. In it, the chairman reportedly notes that he is open to having a discussion about re-designating broadband internet service providers as “common carriers” under Title II of the Communications Act of 1934 – something the agency has the authority to do, but that Wheeler has resisted.
Common carrier designation would mean broadband ISPs would be treated like telephone service, giving the FCC a great deal more authority over them than it currently has.
Title II designation, says Cheng, is the ultimate goal of the protests. She knows that the large ISPs, such as Comcast and Time Warner, will fight hard against it, but she believes the sheer weight of outraged Internet users will help net neutrality advocates win in the end.
“There has been so much support, and the public outcry continues to grow,” said Cheng. “We’re really excited that things are moving.”
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