Learning By Example, Net Neutrality Violations

What is Net Neutrality? Everyone likes to joke that it’s boring and complicated but it’s really neither. While I try to give a good introduction to Net Neutrality, and what violations looks like, in my post The FCC vs. Net Neutrality some people, myself included, learn best from examples. Piggy backing off of a post by Free Press’s Tim Karr I would like to pull some of his examples of past real world net neutrality violations and use them to illustrate what kind of behaviors net neutrality aims to prevent.

Below are excerpts from Tim Karr’s “Net Blocking: A Problem in Need of a Solution” with my short explanation/analysis attached

MADISON RIVER: In 2005, North Carolina ISP Madison River Communications blocked the voice-over-Internet protocol (VOIP) service Vonage. Vonage filed a complaint with the FCC after receiving a slew of customer complaints. The FCC stepped in to sanction Madison River and prevent further blocking, but it lacks the authority to stop this kind of abuse today.

In this case the internet service provider Madison River blocked traffic on it’s network that it identified as coming from Vonage’s computer app. Clearly this Vonage internet phone service competed with Madison River’s own phone bundle so Madison River used it’s position as an ISP to block  Vonage from reaching their customers who used Madison River’s internet pipes.

COMCAST: In 2005, the nation’s largest Internet provider, Comcast, began secretly blocking peer-to-peer technologies that its customers were using over its network. Users of services like BitTorrent and Gnutella were unable to connect to these services. 2007 investigations from the Associated Press, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and others confirmed that Comcast was indeed blocking or slowing file-sharing applications without disclosing this fact to its customers.

Think of all the ways you access the internet: visiting a www website, streaming video with a Netflix app, video chatting with Skype, sending an email etc. All of these uses rely on different protocols to work, but all use the same internet infrastructure. In the case above Comcast secretly disrupted traffic that used certain peer-to-peer protocols. Their motives are unclear but selectively interfering with internet traffic that runs over their pipes in this way is clearly a net neutrality violation.

TELUS: In 2005, Canada’s second largest telecommunications company, Telus, began blocking access to a server that hosted a website supporting a labor strike against the company. Researchers at Harvard and the University of Toronto found that this action resulted in Telus blocking an additional 766 unrelated sites.

In this example Telus customers’ access to certain websites were disabled. ISP’s should not have the unilateral authority to decide which websites their customers have access to. Censoring websites by blocking them is obviously a net neutrality violation.

AT&T: From 2007–2009, AT&T forced Apple to block Skype and other competing VOIP phone services on the iPhone. The wireless provider wanted to prevent iPhone users from using any application that would allow them to make calls on such “over-the-top” voice services. The Google Voice app received similar treatment from carriers like AT&T when it came on the scene in 2009.

This situation is identical to the Madison River example above. An ISP should not be allowed to block specific internet based services that happen to compete with other services that the ISP provides.

WINDSTREAM: In 2010, Windstream Communications, a DSL provider with more than 1 million customers, copped to hijacking user-search queries made using the Google toolbar within Firefox. Users who believed they had set the browser to the search engine of their choice were redirected to Windstream’s own search portal and results.

In this example the ISP Windstream saw that customers were searching Google but instead of sending them the page of Google search results that they requested, the ISP sent them a page of their own search results. Trying to trick customers by replacing a website they requested with a website that the ISP prefers is definitely a net neutrality violation

MetroPCS: In 2011, MetroPCS, at the time one of the top five U.S. wireless carriers, announced plans to block streaming video over its 4G network from all sources except YouTube. MetroPCS then threw its weight behind Verizon’s court challenge against the FCC’s Open Internet Order, hoping that rejection of the agency’s authority would allow it to continue its anti-consumer practices.

“Want to watch video online? Well you can only watch YouTube videos using the internet connection you have.” Doing this to your customers is again a net neutrality violation. Such a scheme would prevent the next ‘YouTube’ from being invented because no customer would be able to access their site.

PAXFIRE: In 2011, the Electronic Frontier Foundation found several small ISPs were redirecting search queries via the vendor Paxfire. The ISPs identified in the initial Electronic Frontier Foundation report included Cavalier, Cogent, Frontier, Fuse, DirecPC, RCN and Wide Open West. Paxfire would intercept an Internet user’s search request at Bing and Yahoo and redirect it to another page. By skipping over the search service’s results, the participating ISPs would collect referral fees for delivering users to select websites.

Similar to the Windstream example above, these ISPs made money by redirecting their customers who asked for Bing & Yahoo to websites run by the ISP’s partners.

AT&T, SPRINT & VERIZON: From 2011–2013, AT&T, Sprint and Verizon blocked Google Wallet, a mobile payment system that competed with a similar service called Isis, which all three companies had a stake in developing.

Are we starting to see a pattern here? Like the Madison River v Vonage, or AT&T v Skype, these companies used their power over their internet tubes to prevent a competing internet based technology from reaching customers.

VERIZON: In 2012, the FCC caught Verizon Wireless blocking people from using tethering applications on their phones. Verizon had asked Google to remove 11 free tethering applications from the Android marketplace. These applications allowed users to circumvent Verizon’s $20 tethering fee and turn their smartphones into Wi-Fi hotspots. By blocking those applications, Verizon violated a Net Neutrality pledge it made to the FCC as a condition of the 2008 airwaves auction.

And yet another example of a mobile ISP trying to block apps that use the internet to compete with other services they sell.

AT&T: In 2012, AT&T announced that it would disable the FaceTime video-calling app on its customers’ iPhones unless they subscribed to a more expensive text-and-voice plan. AT&T had one goal in mind: separating customers from more of their money by blocking alternatives to AT&T’s own products. 

And again… see the Verizon and other examples above.

The examples above are only a few of the tricky ways that ISPs have already experimented with net neutrality violations. None of these examples even begin to mention the net neutrality violating peering arrangements and data cap trickery that ISPs have more recently entered into in an attempt to maximize their profits.

Take Action. Please!

The government agency responsible for protecting the internet is the FCC but their rules have been struck down in court by lawsuits from the telecom companies. The FCC is currently writing new rules that might finally give them the authority to enforce net neutrality. However the only people fighting on the side of Net Neutrality are THE PEOPLE! People like you! Please please please, take two minutes to file an official FCC comment. You don’t have be an expert, just fill in your info and hit submit! If you do want a little more control over what your comment says you can draft your own comment at dearfcc.org