The End of Net Neutrality?

Comcast can decide which of its customers can do what on the Internet. A federal court ruled on Tuesday that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) doesn't have the authority to make broadband providers treat all Internet traffic equally. That means that the company that provides your Internet service can effectively block your access to parts of the web.

In 2007, it became clear that Comcast was selectively blocking access to BitTorrent, a peer-to-peer file-sharing service. Comcast claimed that it was simply preventing customers that use file-sharing services from slowing down traffic for other users—because transferring files uses so much bandwidth, a relatively small number of users could significantly slow web access for everyone else. Since there isn't an unlimited amount of bandwidth available, Comcast argued, they have to prevent people from using it all up. But this kind of "traffic-shaping" gives companies that control the "last mile" of web infrastructure—the part that connects your computer or phone to the rest of the Internet—broad leeway to decide what people can do online. And it could allow companies to charge customers more preferential access to the Internet, as well as keep them from using their competitors' services. It was probably not be a coincidence that Comcast blocked access to a service that competes with its cable business. Along the same lines, AT&T originally prevented iPhone users from using Skype on its network, explaining that "we have no obligation—nor should we have—to facilitate or subsidize our competitors' businesses." And now it comes out that Windstream Communications, a DSL provider with more than a million customers, has been preventing its customers from using other search services by redirecting queries to its own proprietary service.

That's why so many people have advocated the principle of "net neutrality." As net neutrality advocate Google famously put it, "Just as telephone companies are not permitted to tell consumers who they can call or what they can say, broadband carriers should not be allowed to use their market power to control activity online." So after it came out that Comcast was blocking access to BitTorrent, the FCC ordered the company to stop the practice on the grounds that the broadband providers shouldn't determine what people can or can't do on the Internet. And last year the FCC called for formal rules ensuring that everyone be allowed the same freedom to use the Internet as they see fit. On Tuesday, however, a federal court ruled unanimously that without explicit statutory the FCC can't tell broadband providers how to manage their networks. Now, in all likelihood, the fight over access to the Internet will move to Congress, where telecom companies have been lobbying hard against net neutrality laws. As FCC spokesperson Jen Howard said, "Today’s court decision invalidated the prior commission’s approach to preserving an open internet. But the court in no way disagreed with the importance of preserving a free and open Internet. Nor did it close the door to other methods for achieving this important end."

Why a great education means engaging with controversy

Jonathan Zimmerman explains why teachers should invite, not censor, tough classroom debates.

Sponsored by the Institute for Humane Studies
  • During times of war or national crisis in the U.S., school boards and officials are much more wary about allowing teachers and kids to say what they think.
  • If our teachers avoid controversial questions in the classroom, kids won't get the experience they need to know how to engage with difficult questions and with criticism.
  • Jonathan Zimmerman argues that controversial issues should be taught in schools as they naturally arise. Otherwise kids will learn from TV news what politics looks like – which is more often a rant than a healthy debate.
Keep reading Show less

Are these 100 people killing the planet?

Controversial map names CEOs of 100 companies producing 71 percent of the world's greenhouse gas emissions.

Image: Jordan Engel, reused via Decolonial Media License 0.1
Strange Maps
  • Just 100 companies produce 71 percent of the world's greenhouse gases.
  • This map lists their names and locations, and their CEOs.
  • The climate crisis may be too complex for these 100 people to solve, but naming and shaming them is a good start.
Keep reading Show less

SpaceX catches Falcon Heavy nosecone with net-outfitted boat

It marks another milestone in SpaceX's long-standing effort to make spaceflight cheaper.

Technology & Innovation
  • SpaceX launched Falcon Heavy into space early Tuesday morning.
  • A part of its nosecone – known as a fairing – descended back to Earth using special parachutes.
  • A net-outfitted boat in the Atlantic Ocean successfully caught the reusable fairing, likely saving the company millions of dollars.
Keep reading Show less