Note: The fight for net neutrality has been raging for over a decade and represents one of the biggest single threats to every day internet users' ability to enjoy the web. Readers interested in the issue's overall effect on the internet and your civil rights are encouraged to visit these hyperlinks explaining why the issue is so important. This article focuses on how such changes can affect blockchain or decentralization.
88 percent of Americans from both sides of the political spectrum are in favor of rules protecting "net neutrality" – the idea that you should be able to transmit information between your computer and the websites you visit free of arbitrary interference or censorship from your Internet Service Providers (ISPs). But in a highly controversial move, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), under new Chairman Ajit Pai, is considering undoing laws that protect such free and open internet access. Claiming to return development of the internet to "technologists and engineers," the governmental agency apparently believes that allowing ISPs to decide which companies deserve "more internet" than others will be good for society. This move comes after more than 800 technologist and engineering firms (including companies like Y Combinator, reddit, and Github) signed an open letter to the FCC stating "we … depend on an open internet—including enforceable net neutrality rules that ensure big cable companies can't discriminate against people like us."
While the net neutrality controversy has stormed for years, blockchain and decentralized companies who are actively working on creating a new internet that is "free, democratic, and engaging" have recently joined the fight. Companies like Augur, IPFS, Brave, BigchainDB, and ETHNews have all pledged their support of the pro-net neutrality effort. These companies are concerned that their services might be targeted if net neutrality protections are removed, especially because their products directly threaten ISPs and many of their partners.
In a conversation with ETHNews, Greg McMullen, Chief Policy Officer at blockchain company BigchainDB and co-founder of The Interplanetary Database (IPDB), discussed exactly how changes to net neutrality rules will affect blockchain users and companies. At its core, he explained, is that "net neutrality is what allows innovation to happen at the edges." He gave the example of Netflix, which he believed was allowed by a lack of ISP interference to grow from being a tiny startup into the major competitor of legacy television networks that it is today. Had ISPs pushed customers towards their own content, Netflix would likely have never achieved the user base or web traffic that enabled it to become an innovative powerhouse.
According to McMullen, the blockchain community sees itself the same way. Almost daily, we hear of new blockchain-empowered projects that threaten to disrupt high net worth but inefficient legacy industries, such as music distribution, energy delivery, banking, or even the fundamental structure of the internet. As these big players feel the pressure of blockchain competition, they may seek to use their enormous revenues to pay ISPs to discourage or prevent customers from using blockchain services. Further, ISPs themselves may be threatened by decentralized innovators who are using blockchain to build mesh networks that could render ISPs obsolete, choosing to censor any traffic that promotes these technologies.
These concerns are very real to the decentralized industry that primarily consists of startups, as ISPs have already used their centralized position to harm products threatening their operational models. In 2008, Comcast was famously caught throttling – arbitrarily slowing in ways not technically necessary – internet speeds to the Bittorrent network that threatened the advertising revenues of the corporate giant's entertainment subsidiaries. In another example, Verizon charged customers an additional fee to use "tethering" – or using their cell phones as internet hot spots for laptops – and was caught moving to block third party apps that could be used for free. Should ISPs recognize how decentralization may be used to increase internet speeds and remove the need for their centralized services, they may leverage their current position to unfairly block traffic to those products before the market ever has a chance to evolve.
McMullen could imagine several ways ISPs could interfere with blockchain adoption. One would be for ISPs to "throttle" all encrypted traffic. A second possibility is for ISPs to perform "deep packet inspection" on customers' web requests to identify traffic towards decentralized applications, and throttling or denying those requests. But perhaps the biggest threat, according to McMullen, is the concept of "zero-rating," where ISPs do not necessarily throttle any traffic speeds, but rather allow customers to access certain sponsored websites or applications for free or to not count that data use against their data limit. In this way, customers do not consciously notice any loss in their normal internet use, but rather are subtly pushed away from newcomers and innovators who likely cannot afford to be included in such packages.
So why is the FCC considering acting against the wishes of voters, internet users, and the small businesses they claim to protect? A frequently offered argument is that a lack of net neutrality promotes competition in the ISP space, theoretically forcing providers to invest in technology to deliver "better, faster and cheaper internet." But nearly a majority of the country has had only one or two ISPs servicing their areas for longer than net neutrality rules have been successfully enforced, hardly representing the wide range of competition this theory would expect. If ISPs and similar companies were actually in fierce competition for customers' business, it hasn't shown in customer satisfaction rankings, which have listed ISPs, wireless providers, and cable companies among the bottom five industries over the last seven years.
But even if lack of net neutrality laws would allow for more developed bandwidth and service, does this justify the practices of throttling and zero-rating? McMullen is not convinced, arguing "the gains that we get in bandwidth, if there are any gains, would be far outstripped from the losses from the harm to innovation by having a more restricted internet."
At least 188 companies and organizations of all sizes – most of which did not exist more than twenty years ago – agree with him, joining today's protest that argues for an equal playing field to foster innovation and small-business development. The list – which includes websites ranging from heavy hitters like Netflix and Amazon to smaller outfits like ThinkGeek and DuckDuckGo, and includes a diverse set of corporate interests ranging from the National Hispanic Media Coalition to MetalSucks to PornHub – clearly indicates that the internet wants to keep existing net neutrality laws. McMullen was particularly tickled by his own projects' neighbors on the "Battle for the Net" site, and pointed to how "IPDB is on this giant grid of organizations next to the Internet Archive and Kink.com and the Internet Creators Guild." He explained the rare kismet of so many different forces supporting net neutrality, saying, "I can't think of anywhere else you would find these organizations all coming together in one place, like venture capital firms like DigitalOcean next to Creative Commons next to Change.org next to Boing Boing and Bloody Disgusting." He continued, "I really I can't think of what other issue would have brought this diverse of a group together, and it's really exciting to see the community come together that way."
US-based ETHNews readers who are concerned with how a change to FCC rules may affect the Ethereum community, or their internet use altogether, can join these companies in fighting back. You can use this form to write a comment to the FCC indicating your support for the current net neutrality framework (Note: Please be sure to use that form and not the FCC's regular comment field, as it has "coincidentally been hacked" during comment periods in the past, preventing users from successfully submitting their concerns). You can also encourage your friends on social media to participate by posting, tweeting, snapping or whatever-ing some of these awesome pictures and memes. And if you run a site with high traffic, you can post one of the alerts on this page to encourage your users to visit Battle for the Net and get involved.
For many in the industry, keeping these rules in place is dire. Online protests like the internet-wide blackout in response to the Stop Online Privacy Act have been successful in the past because they instigated public action and successfully demonstrated to the government how important online freedom is to citizens. Please join us again now because – as McMullen poignantly put it – "for everyone, net neutrality means that the internet can go on."