NET NEUTRALITY. I’m sure you’ve heard that term plenty this year, but what is the issue really about? The Net Neutrality issue is immensely important and how it is handled will have long-term consequences for America. That being said, despite its significance, the conversation often gets derailed because of its complexity. Fortunately, the issue is not as complex as it seems. The idea behind Net Neutrality is the concept that every American should have access to fast, reliable, uncensored, and affordable internet access. Internet Service Providers should not be able to control what we view on the internet and that all internet data should be treated equally.
Without Net Neutrality protections in place, ISPs could block websites and services at will. This wouldn’t be an issue if we had a free market, where consumers could choose an ISP that gives them quality service at a good price, but that’s not the reality. Due to the intricacies of laying cables, particularly when cables need to cross publicly owned infrastructure/land, most Americans only have one or two internet providers to choose from. These ISPs essentially have de-facto government sanctioned monopolies due to these “right of way” rules.
Unfortunately, the companies that stand to lose the most, are the same companies that provide internet. They don't want a free and competitive market because maintaining their control will ultimately lead to greater profits. To make matters worse, Comcast is currently in the process of buying Time Warner and ATT is currently in the process of buying DirecTV. If both of those deals go through, that means that approximately 56 million Americans will have their television, phone, and internet supplied by only two companies.
Why is this important? As consumers we stand to get better services at cheaper prices. As entrepreneurs, we stand to have increased opportunities to disrupt established industries and reliable access to everything the internet has to offer. A simple example of this is that you can now FaceTime someone in China for free but if you call them using your cellphone, you are charged a ton of money for a long distance call. In this instance, the internet enables a superior service to traditional phone calls, while costing significantly less.
Net Neutrality is based on the belief that every American should have access to fast, reliable, uncensored, and affordable internet access.
Internet Service Providers are spending millions of dollars to make sure that they retain complete control of our internet, and it’s working. Net Neutrality should have been a huge issue in this year’s national elections but was largely ignored. If we don't prioritize a fast, reliable, cost effective, and accessible internet in our country, other countries will, and they will have a competitive advantage for it. When you can access a whole world of customers through the internet, it becomes much easier to move to a country with a better regulatory environment; businesses will always seek to maximize profits.
Last week, President Obama announced his support to classify internet service as a utility, and treat it as vital infrastructure similar to how we treat landlines, water, electric, and gas. Republican leaders have already come out strongly against Obama’s proposal, and they control Congress, so unfortunately we should expect nothing but gridlock to happen over the next few years. Hope is not lost though, instead of searching for a political solution, we should be striving for tech based solutions that solve the issue once and for all.
We need to start encrypting everything. When all internet traffic on the internet is encrypted, Internet Service Providers will not be able to differentiate between traffic. All they will be able to see is that encrypted traffic is moving through their infrastructure, but not what the traffic contains. Ok, so that sounds easy enough, so how do we implement widespread encryption? Right now, we have three main tools at our disposal: HTTPS, VPNs, and TOR.
HTTPS is implemented on the website side, and it is up to website admins to enable it and prioritize the privacy/security of their users. Here at CoinPrices, we have had HTTPS enabled sitewide by default since August. Some sites have HTTPS support but do not default to it, for those sites you should use a browser extension, HTTPS Everywhere, that automatically forces sites to default to HTTPS if they have it setup. Many sites still do not have HTTPS setup, make sure you petition your favorite sites to accept it, and explain how important the issue is to you. Support sites that prioritize your privacy and security.
VPNs and TOR are tools that can be implemented by specific users rather than website admins. VPN stands for Virtual Private Network, essentially you pay a company to encrypt all your traffic and send it through their private servers before the traffic is sent unencrypted into the web. All your ISP sees is encrypted traffic going to the VPN server, nothing else. Since VPNs are transporting the entirety of your internet traffic, it is important that you choose a reputable service otherwise the VPN company may spy on you or sell your info to advertisers. For this reason, it is also important that you use a VPN service that accepts bitcoin so you can pay for the VPN without tying it to your real identity. Essentially, you are switching the company that sees all your internet traffic from your ISP to your VPN provider. That being said, there are many VPN providers to choose from while most people only have one choice for an ISP, so the free market works much better among VPN services than ISPs.
TOR works like a free decentralized VPN where your encrypted traffic is routed through other participants computers rather than dedicated VPN servers. It offers a compelling free service but since you don’t know whose computer your traffic is exiting from, unencrypted traffic could be intercepted by a malicious individual. For this reason, it is important to always use another form of encryption with TOR, whether that is connecting to a site that supports HTTPS or using a dedicated VPN through TOR. In this instance, your traffic exiting the TOR computer would still be encrypted so the individual/entity controlling that computer would not be able to see your traffic. It should be noted that VPNs are usually much faster than TOR since you are paying for a dedicated service.
Widespread use of these tools would make controlling internet traffic by ISPs and governments much more difficult but not completely impossible. To reach the next step, we need truly decentralized systems, and after years of development, solutions are finally within reach. Bitcoin tech in particular is enabling two projects that are very promising, Maidsafe and Storj.
Storj seeks to enable decentralized encrypted P2P cloud storage. Basically users will be able to devote extra storage space on their computer to Storj and get paid out in cryptocurrency for the amount of space they contribute. Everything is encrypted and redundant so users cannot see what information is being stored on their hard drives and information is always available even if a specific user turns off their computer or loses internet access. The cost to store data with Storj will be set by the free market, supply and demand will dictate how much individuals will require to be paid in order to host Storj data.
Maidsafe essentially takes the concept of Storj and applies it to the entirety of services on the Internet. To accomplish this goal, Maidsafe is essentially an internet within the Internet, operating as a completely encrypted and isolated ecosystem but using the physical Internet infrastructure already in place. Users will run Maidsafe nodes that will be the backbone of the system and will be rewarded with cryptocurrency in return for their contribution. The system will be completely encrypted (so ISPs and governments cannot filter the traffic), open source (so the community can audit the code), and decentralized. Maidsafe can also be run on mesh networks, making it even more versatile and censor resistant, and reducing its reliance on traditional Internet infrastructure.
Every American should have access to fast, reliable, uncensored, and affordable internet access. Our government has consistently failed us on this issue, but technology holds the answer. Encrypt everything and decentralize as much as possible, the result will be a more robust and secure network. If Internet Service Providers are unable to differentiate between traffic, they will be unable to shape, filter, or censor it. The only true answer to the Net Neutrality issue, is one based on technology.