from the sorry,-freedom-is-extra dept
So if you’ve followed the debate over net neutrality for much of the last decade, you probably remember images like these, purporting to show what the internet might look like if we let broadband duopolies like AT&T or Comcast dictate internet access pricing structure:
And while these mock ups were tongue in cheek, large ISPs have given every indication that this idea of freedom costing extra isn’t too far from their ideal. And abusing a lack of broadband competition to force users to shell out additional funds to access to the content and services of their choice isn’t too far off of what has already happened, whether we’re talking about AT&T’s decision to block Facetime from working unless users shelled out for more expensive plans, or Verizon’s recent decision to charge users $10 more just to avoid arbitrary video throttling.
While the EU does have some fairly decent net neutrality rules, countries do have some leeway in terms of enforcement — especially when it comes to “zero rating” (or the act of imposing usage caps, then exempting your own or a partner’s content). So ISPs in Portugal have already started taking advantage of it in a way that eerily echoes the warnings net neutrality advocates have been making for years. Lisbon-based mobile and fixed broadband provider MEO has been selling broadband service tiers for some time that cap your internet data usage, after which they’re happy to sell you additional buckets of data depending on which types of services you traditionally use:
In Portugal, with no net neutrality, internet providers are starting to split the net into packages. pic.twitter.com/TlLYGezmv6
— Ro Khanna (@RoKhanna) October 27, 2017
It’s important to note that capping usage then doling out additional data based on types of content isn’t the same idea as blocking users from accessing parts of the internet unless they pay up. Several news outlets have conflated MEO’s pricing above with the outright blocking of certain services, which simply isn’t the case. Most ISPs realize that outright blocking of content is a PR disaster that’s more trouble than its worth.
That said, what MEO is doing is still detrimental to the health of the internet. As we saw with T-Mobile’s Binge On program — which exempted certain video and music services from the carrier’s caps, these “zero rating” and usage caps plans are designed to create the illusion of a bargain. But these types of plans not only raise questions about ISP power to dictate which companies and services are whitelisted, but they’re based on a fundamentally incorrect premise that these usage restrictions are necessary in the first place.
Usage caps and overage fees aren’t based on network or economic realities. They aren’t useful to manage congestion. Their entire function is to creatively drive up costs via arbitrary and artificial barriers to entry, after which ISPs convince consumers they’re somehow getting a deal by providing additional data “for free” or “at a discount.” ISPs have often falsely tried to equate this as the same thing as 1-800 numbers or free shipping, which is bullshit. All that’s really happening is that internet access is being artificially limited, and users are being forced to pay more money to access the internet as intended.
While people often like to focus on the threat of ISPs blocking access to content, ISPs know that’s a surefire way to earn public scorn. That’s why ISPs around the world have long since developed a myriad of more creative ways to (ab)use the lack of competition in the space to ill effect, whether that’s imposing arbitrary and unnecessary usage caps and overage fees, exempting an ISPs own services from said caps, or hamstringing competitors elsewhere in the network, as we saw when ISPs began intentionally clogging peering points to drive up costs for streaming competitors and transit operators (interconnection).
With the Trump administration rushing forward with its plan to kill net neutrality here in the States, and a rise in cable’s monopoly over fixed-line broadband, you can expect a whole lot more U.S. broadband pricing and package “creativity” in the not so distant future. That may not involve outright blocking your access to content, but it’s more than likely to involve entirely arbitrary, uncompetitive and harmful limits you’ll be told are somehow necessary and for your own good.