Net Neutrality -- Privacy Silver Bullet, or Can of Worms?

When FCC Chairman Ajit Pai announced last week that he would eliminate the "fair play" rules known as Net neutrality, he took a step that some economists and technologists worry will eventually lead to the monopolization of Internet services in America. What, if any, impact would the elimination of Net neutrality rules have on consumer privacy? The answer, in short, is that consumers would simply be forced to pay more for it. Before I explain why, let's get on the same page about what Net neutrality means.

Net neutrality rules currently require Internet service providers to treat all content equally, with regard to quality and throughput, regardless of its size, shape, origin, or destination. In economic terms, the rules prohibit ISPs from creating premium classes of service, or "fast lanes." In so doing, they treat ISPs as publicly regulated utilities. This would be akin to mandating the "fair use" types from Washington D.C., via Codes of Federal Regulation or otherwise, rather than allowing decentralized courts to decide what uses are fair and which are not, bringing things closer to the civil code and away from common law.

Such Net neutrality rules also benefit fledgling innovation. If a startup providing a service like end-to-end encryption needed to pay a "fast lane" premium to adequately serve its customers, it might not be able to adequately invest in its product-or reach any customers. But with Net neutrality rules, a nascent business faces the same barriers to reaching potential customers as those of entrenched technology titans such as Google and Facebook.

With Net neutrality's one-size-fits-all approach, companies ostensibly requiring more bandwidth for more complex content aren't able to pay more for preferential ISP treatment. That doesn't directly impact privacy. But in the long term, it could. Profits otherwise available to ISP providers, but unavailable under Net neutrality, would not be reinvested to create more effective, and potentially less expensive, encryption methods. The benefits of such research and development can be seen in other industries, including pharmaceuticals.

One stipulation of the Net neutrality rules is that carriers must "protect the confidentiality of [consumers'] proprietary information" from unauthorized use and disclosure. This could make it harder to track down either direct or contributory copyright infringers. Whether ISPs would uphold such privacy standards absent a legal requirement would likely correspond with their competitive landscape: More competition for a certain level of service might mean more consumer pressure to provide privacy protections, and vice versa.

With less competition, ISPs likely need more regulation to ensure that they adequately protect consumer privacy. Deregulation would result in privacy becoming more of a luxury than a right. Consumers, for example, might need to pay a premium for a level of Internet access that doesn't throttle high-speed encrypted communications. At a cheaper, throttled level, they would have fewer and lower-quality choices for apps and services.

Whether Net neutrality's privacy benefits are outweighed by its concomitant privacy costs is another question.

The Open Internet Order from 2015 requires compliance by ISPs with the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act. Under CALE, telecommunications carriers must construct their network in such a way that they can give the government a backdoor into the network for surveillance purposes when presented with a warrant.

This law coupling enables courts under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to issue warrants to tap U.S. citizens' communications devices, all without counsel to speak on citizens' behalf. In the first 33 years of the FISA court's existence, judges denied only 11 requests, resulting in a staggering 99.97 percent rate of approval, according to the Stanford Law Review.

There is also nothing in CALE, nor any Net neutrality law, that mandates the use of specific technology to protect consumer information, such as encryption. A $33 million judgment levied against Comcast for unintentionally listing phone numbers it had promised to keep private wasn't the result of breaching any specific provisions of federal law mandating specific encryption methods.

Backdoor-access provisions already neutralize the consumer privacy benefits of Net neutrality laws. To think otherwise is to naively exchange the potentially prying private eyes of corporate America, which can't imprison you, with those that can.  

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