On Thursday, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) under the direction of Ajit Pai voted to rollback net neutrality rules.
Net Neutrality regulations, passed under the Obama administration had classified internet service providers (ISPs) as “common carriers,” compelling ISPs like Verizon, Comcast, AT&T, and Time Warner to treat all internet content equally.
They could not, for instance, charge you extra for watching Netflix instead of watching Youtube videos. Now, with net neutrality repealed, they technically can.
With these regulations now rolled back, the FCC’s removal of the definition “common carriers” unbinds these ISP giants from regulations that they argue will help free market competition rather than hinder it, giving consumers more ISPs to choose from. This could not be further from the truth.
What does this mean for us?
It means that content can be censored. What used to be a free information exchange platform now has corporate giants adjusting your connection speeds depending on which sites they approve of. An example of this is the relationship between Comcast and NBC. Since the Comcast owns NBS, Comcast can choose to offer sufficient connection speeds to NBC while throttling the speeds of their rivals. Preventing you from accessing different viewpoints means from other news sites would be literal censorship from Comcast.
How do we protect ourselves in this age of corporate censorship where ISPs control what you can see and watch?
At the moment, VPNs seem to be a good solution. A VPN is a secure encrypted tunnel connecting two separate devices, meaning your ISP will not know which sites you’re going on, and therefore can’t automatically block you from accessing it. This is assuming ISPs can only throttle the speeds of users they can see. With the use of a VPN, it is highly unlikely that they would be able to restrict information flow with the ease they could of a regular consumer.
However, since the repeal of net neutrality is still so fresh, how can we know whether a VPN will work?
We can observe the (rather disturbing) similarities between what the ISPs can do in the US and what dictatorships worldwide have done. Looking at authoritarian regimes like China, they have been restricting internet access through their Great Firewall for almost ten years. Yet, despite government efforts to reduce the presence of VPNs by banning them, Chinese netizens remain able to access the open internet through a few VPNs.
If an authoritarian superpower cannot fully censor all VPNs, what are the ISP’s chances? That being said which VPNs would actually help post-Net Neutrality?
Personally, I would posit ExpressVPN as a strong candidate: not only are they one of the few VPNs that actually function well in China (still!), their new leak testing tools make them industry leaders in creating transparency and accountability for the quality of the VPN industry as a whole. Their commitment to preventing such leaks is proven from the latest reports on Comparitech.
With such protection still available, one can remain hopeful of access to a free internet even after the end of net neutrality.