The FCC’s decisions to overturn Net Neutrality is bad news for privacy advocates
Today’s decision to overturn Net Neutrality went exactly like everyone expected it to go. Despite a highly theatrical distraction in the form of a bomb threat, the FCC voted 3-2 to overturn Obama-era net neutrality rules.
Net neutrality is certainly not dead. But it’s on life support.
Already a group of State attorneys general are preparing a lawsuit to stop the decision. Others will file suit as well. This is going to be tied up in the courts for years. So don’t expect the big ISPs – Comcast, AT&T and Verizon – to trip over themselves enacting any major changes right out the gate.
That may actually play into their opponents’ hands and make it easier for them to get a stay in court.
But rest assured once the dust is settled, change is coming. That’s why we took the time to reach out to some industry experts for their opinions on what these upcoming changes mean for our privacy and for cyber security, in general.
Let’s start from the top
What is Net Neutrality?
Without getting too technical, net neutrality was essentially a rule that required internet service providers to treat all traffic as equal.
“The premise behind Net Neutrality was the notion of Internet as a utility, much like electric grid or water that we depend on,” said Hamid Karimi, VP of Business Development at Beyond Security. “Utilities by definition are essential for basic living and cannot be monopolized or manipulated simply for profit reasons.”
The FCC’s argument in overturning Net Neutrality is that the internet is not a public utility.
“Besides allowing Internet Service Providers to throttle and block content based on policy, paying customer, paying vendors, and overall content, [the decision to overturn Net Neutrality] moves the governing body of Internet communications from the FCC to the FTC,” said Morey Haber, VP of Technology at BeyondTrust.
“This has some staggering ramifications that businesses and consumers need to watch. The Internet itself is no longer viewed as a communications vehicle in the eyes of the government but rather a trade vehicle for commerce and content. This means that recent laws requiring the taxation of goods interstate, services provided that could be taxed, and premium fees for services can now be better enforced and potentially new taxes levied. These are hidden possibilities with the changes voted on today.”
How Will the Loss of Net Neutrality Affect User Privacy?
Beyond the obvious fact that this sets the table for the internet to be split into packages and sold like cable television, this will also take a toll on our right to privacy on the internet.
“The FCC’s current Net Neutrality provision called Title II requires carriers to adhere to consumers’ privacy rules based on the definition of “proprietary information,”” said Karimi, referring to the now undone Obama-era protections. “Current US laws do not offer such protections, therefore for privacy advocates, the repeal of Net Neutrality is a costly measure allowing the potential compromise of Personally Identifiable Information (PII).”
Matt Pinsker is a Professor of Homeland Security at Virginia Commonwealth University. He expounded on the ways that this could affect individuals’ privacy:
“It means a decrease in privacy because ISP’s will have the option to determine the type of media you are accessing, as well as logging not only what you access but how often. If they want to create a price to access adult content, then internet users would have to out themselves as “porn users” by paying a special fee to access adult content. ISP’s could apply this not just to adult content, but to any content such as email, videos, or news. It could even go further where ISP’s could charge different rates if you want to access conservative or liberal online resources, and users would again have to out themselves by opting to pay in order to have access.”
And there’s an incentive to ISPs to collect this information, too.
“For ISP’s to enforce such rules,” added Pinsker, “they would need to more closely monitor each individual’s internet usage to identify just what exactly the web traffic is.”
Could Losing Net Neutrality Make us Less Competitive?
America’s cybersecurity specialists are in a constant arms race with their international contemporaries. Lately, it’s felt a little like we’re beginning to fall behind.
Todd Millecam, the CEO of SWYM Systems thinks this decision will only widen the gap.
“By removing some of these constraints, the traditional learning space for cybersecurity experts will effectively be demolished. Since Russia and China have kept their security-specialist incubators intact, if this policy remains in place for more than a year or two, I would expect our cybersecurity as a country will erode as foreign nationals enjoy a more friendly environment to learn in,” said Millecam.
“The short of it is that this puts us at a human-capital disadvantage to other nations.”
One Benefit: Better DDoS Mitigation
The news isn’t all bad though, one of the positive offshoots of this decision is that it potentially makes it easier to mitigate DDoS attacks. A DDoS or Distributed Denial of Service attack takes traffic from a network of computers and uses it to overload a targeted server.
The old rules actually made DDoS attacks more effective by requiring ISPs to treat all traffic equally.
“The current rules limit the ability of providers to respond quickly to a suspicious Denial of Service since they are effectively forced to treat all traffic equally even if there is reasonable doubt about certain benign bits and bytes,” said Karimi. “The repeal, in theory, allows these providers to implement limit recursion (throttling) and disable or block certain flows.”
Not Everyone is Convinced Overturning Net Neutrality is Bad
Not everyone thinks today’s decision is a bad thing. Gregory Morawietz, VP of Operations at Single Point of Contact, thinks the markets will bear things out.
“I say that if we eliminate net neutrality and business is affected by it then people will leave providers that are tampering with internet usage,” said Morawietz. “The market will manage what the law fails to oversee. We will not see a lot of the changes that are made by these organizations but again the market will try and reveal them so that companies can differentiate themselves and promise marketing incentives.”
“The repeal of Net Neutrality appears to have a built-in naive assumption based on both the goodwill of players and market competitiveness. However, there is no incentive or mandate that will protect the small vendors or even the larger ones if they have a competing business with the Internet service provider.”
Regardless, as was mentioned before, we’re not likely to see any rapid changes. Things are going to continue on the way they have been for a while.
“The myriad of lawsuits regarding this change will surface and ultimately this decision will be decided in the courts,” said Haber. “Much like beer sales in the 1980’s when Coors could not be sold across state lines, the FTC may be reaching to say the Internet can be restricted across state lines when free and open commerce should occur across state boundaries; minus any local prohibiting laws like on fireworks.”