Reporting Net Neutrality Violations Is Now A Snap… Actually Identifying Them Not So Much

As you might have heard, the FCC’s new net neutrality rules went live on Friday and, contrary to ISP and friend prognostications, the internet did not explode into a fiery cacophony of Armageddon-esque proportions (surely that happens later). With the courts refusing a stay of the rules, the FCC’s neutrality protections will remain intact until either the ISPs are victorious in court, or there’s a 2016 party (and associated FCC leadership) shift. Until then, consumers can file their complaints with the FCC in a variety of ways, including snail mail.

Of course, actually determining whether your ISP is up to no good is another issue entirely, and unfortunately for those of you sick-to-death of the neutrality discussion, getting the rules in place is really just the beginning.

We’ve talked a few times over the years about people crying net neutrality wolf, and attributing perfectly run-of-the-mill network issues to malicious intent. That’s sure to be an even bigger problem going forward. The average internet user doesn’t really have the ability to differentiate run-of-the-mill routing or DNS problems from aggressive anti-competitive behavior, and in the new age of more subtle net neutrality infractions, that’s probably going to be more true than ever. That’s of course why folks like MLAB have started offering an internet health test that will investigate your connection for hints of ISP skulduggery.

If you’ve yet to run the test, you might want to; data’s going to be stored, cataloged, and eventually publicized for potential use against neutrality violators:

“An individual test may be considered an aberration,” (Free Press boss Tim) Karr wrote. “In order to make the case that there’s systemic throttling or degrading you need to perform several tests from different addresses and at different times. That’s what we’re hoping to show by gathering data from hundreds of thousands of separate tests.” “I think participating in the Internet Health Test is the best thing an Internet user can do to gather comprehensive evidence of abuse,” he added. Battle for the Net hasn’t published the results of its analysis on Internet Health Test data yet, but it plans on doing so sometime in the future.”

So while companies and organizations like MLAB should be able to substantiate neutrality violation claims with hard data, that’s going to be notably less likely for individual consumers. The problem, as we’ve touched on previously, is there are still a variety of ways to violate net neutrality while looking like you’re just engaging in everyday business affairs from a network analysis perspective. For example, there’s every indication that the FCC is going to let zero-rating and cap-related shenanigans like AT&T’s Sponsored Data and T-Mobile’s Music Freedom continue as is.

As Facebook and Google are painfully learning overseas, most neutrality advocates realize these kinds of zero-rated programs violate neutrality by tilting the playing field against smaller companies or independent operations — all while convincing users they’re doing them a favor. So ISPs certainly can get away with neutrality violations under this new paradigm — they just have to be much more clever about it while massaging public sentiment. Whether the FCC cracks down on zero-rating (the practice of letting some companies buy their way around already arbitrary usage caps) should provide a pretty good litmus test for whether or not the FCC’s going to be willing to go the extra mile on enforcement.

Of course, if nobody files complaints, ISPs will be sure to insist that this is proof positive that there was never anything to worry about in the first place. Except that’s not true: the absence of complaints could indicate the threat of the rules is working as intended. In fact, we’ve already seen transit and last mile ISPs suddenly and magically get along beautifully after a year of very ugly bickering, thanks simply to the mere threat of real rules.

All of that said, we’re still in a much better place than we were under the original 2010 rules, which excluded wireless and had enough loopholes to drive entire military convoys through. Of course, if you’re still the type to buy into the ISP (and paid friend) narrative that meaningful Title II-based net neutrality protections will destroy the internet, crush free speech, hinder innovation and harm puppies, then there’s probably no evidence on earth that’s going to knock you off that particular perch. But while you’re busy waiting for the internet to die to make a political point, the rest of us will need to remain vigilant to ensure that the FCC, now equipped with the right tools, actually does its job.

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