No, Blockchain Isn’t Net Neutrality’s Silver Bullet: Part One
We Begin With Hyperlinks
Net neutrality, at its most basic, is the idea that there should be no prioritizing of information or data on the internet. Netflix shouldn’t load quicker than Hulu because they’ve paid an internet service provider to stream faster. Sure, there’s a bit more to it than that. Here’s more on net neutrality along with a better idea of the reach telecom companies have across various industries, should you want a deeper dive. Without net neutrality, public, decentralized blockchain used to store any kind of value could be utterly destroyed, or at least rendered sufficiently useless. We could see a sharp rise in proprietary blockchains that don’t play nice with other blockchains or function with the notion of decentralization. And get ready to see crypto gone wild, should we lose net neutrality protections, as everyone makes their own, brand-specific token.
I’m not sure what I hoped to find when I started reading and researching for this post. I initially came to the idea hoping to be able to say (definitively) that, should net neutrality go down, blockchain would save the day and help us subvert the ISPs. Sure, the June 11 repeal of the FCC’s regulation on net neutrality was a blow, but we could get past that, right? We could figure out a way to slap some blockchain on the open-internet projects (more on that later) and we’d all come out on top. After some digging, I’m not quite sure that’s possible. Maybe it never will be given the strength and dedication of the opposition. What I’ve learned is that, for the success of public, decentralized blockchains that store value, net neutrality must succeed. Blockchain isn’t the antidote here, blockchain is the patient.
The ISP Problem
We’ve hit the point where ISPs are dictating the rules of the internet within the United States. They’re buying favor in Congress and they have an FCC chairman where shouting “ties to Verizon” is only the tip of the iceberg. In case everything you’ve already heard about Ajit Pai ignoring the public hasn’t convinced you, the FCC will now no longer review informal customer complaints. You’ll have to pony up the cash if you’d like your complaint against your telecom company heard.
ISPs are lying about the costs of providing you internet. Period. We’ll talk more about the selective throttling that’s already happening (and how nearly everyone is susceptible to this practice) later on in the post. For the moment, consider that the US is already one of the most expensive places in the world to access the internet. You can get that data broken down in a variety of infuriating infographics. But knowing we pay more than most for internet stings that much more when you know that ISPs are making more in revenue while also paying less in infrastructure. So they’re spending less, making more, and now are ready (and allowed) to charge you based on the services and platforms you would like to access. They’re even looking to Congress for the benefit of being considered a utility, without being required to provide any of the community benefits that come along with that designation (like actually providing internet to all, for example).
They can get slightly more nefarious down the road, should they decide it’s in their interests. Blacklist and whitelist attacks are both possibilities, should ISPs further dictate our direction in terms of access to the internet. Here’s a quick explanation of these two types of censorship. A blacklist is a list of specific servers, sites, or protocols (google.com, SSH, etc…) which are deliberately slowed or censored. A whitelist is a list of specific servers, sites, or protocols which are not slowed or censored, while all others are affected. This is far more difficult to circumvent than a blacklist, since circumvention typically requires cooperation or exploitation of one or more of the whitelisted entities.
Whitelist attacks are especially tough and potentially problematic for blockchains. A blacklist someone could potentially work around with a blacklist VPN. A whitelist scenario would require mimicking an entity that was on the whitelist. In the worst-case scenario, Major Streaming Service A could strike up a deal with an ISP to have whitelist privileges. With those privileges from the ISP, Major Streaming Service A gains a pipeline to consumers for faster service than other sites like Facebook or the New York Times. Now, in this worst-case scenario, Major Streaming Service A would go one step further and get the ISP to blacklist Major Streaming Service B, their direct competitor. This would mean Major Streaming Service A had a priority line, other sites had the next-best line (maybe), but Major Streaming Service B, specifically, would be actively throttled, due to their placement on the blacklist. But ISPs aren’t content to merely attack consumers from one side. This is America, after all. And they’ve got plenty of help from the men and women they’re courting for that second attack.
Our Government Isn’t Helping Either
Your internet service providers are pumping millions of dollars into Congress to dismantle net neutrality, among their other goals. They are not just looking to make deals with platform providers to prioritize content, they’re looking for new ways to push more cost onto the consumer for piecemeal content, service, and (likely) hardware choices. That’s where Congress can help the ISPs. These telecom companies want more money on both ends and, for now, it looks like they’re going to get it. But in terms of our government, they’re not only winning with Congress, they’re winning with the FCC and Ajit Pai too. They’re winning with everyone. No, seriously. Out of the top four recipients from ISPs, two are Dems, and two are Republicans.
We’ve seen that many in our government, across party lines, have voted not just in the interest of the ISPs, but they have actively voted against the American people. As more about these fake DDoS attacks comes out (and, you know, this), I’m starting to think Ajit is potentially pure, smiling evil. Make no mistake, no part of Congress appears to be helping, but our current FCC is, truly, the enemy of the people (if we’re allowed to just throw that term around these days). This is hard to argue, when Pai’s FCC lies to Americans every chance they get. Not only that, they’re openly ignoring the will of the people. Their own inspector general has now even confirmed they’ve been lying to us. Millions of legitimate comments were ignored in the wake of an FCC request for comments in favor of fake, bot-generated comments supporting the net neutrality repeal. Not only that, the DDoS attack (along with one from 2014) was likely fabricated to distract from the overwhelming support (thanks mostly to John Oliver and Last Week Tonight) for keeping net neutrality. At least after the inspector general report, it appeared Congress would try to hold Pai accountable. That didn’t end up happening.
Pai appeared in front of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation on Thursday, August 16. During opening statements, it was comforting to see that one of the four commissioners, Jessica Rosenworcel, even reference the fake DDoS claims. As the hearing continued, we see low-ball questions, at best, all the way up to Senator Wicker mocking those who opposed the repeal of net neutrality on the grounds that “the internet is still here, right?” FCC commissioner Rosenworcel tried her hardest to express that not every member of the committee has been compromised (yes, compromised) but it was all in vain. Pai avoided and laughed his way through the meeting, ensuring this farce he orchestrated continues on without a hitch.
Despite hearings and scattered congressional concern, neither Congress nor the current FCC want net neutrality to succeed because it is too profitable to let it fail and let ISP providers make the rules and cut Congress in later.
The Opposition Party
That’s not to say there aren’t those looking to circumvent ISP’s hostile takeover. Projects have been attempted in Detroit, Colorado, and Los Angelesto provide internet either in places telecom companies have ignored, or as an alternative to what they offer. In Colorado, that didn’t go so well with the ISPs. Those working toward a better internet in Detroit through the Equitable Internet Initiative (quoted from the Vice article) see a “future in which ISPs are owned by local governments, small businesses, nonprofit community groups, and the people they serve are the path forward and the only realistic way of ending big telecom’s stranglehold on America.” It’s a shame the FCC and various levels of government don’t see that as a positive further east in North Carolina either.
Imagine a community-owned, community-run internet. A Community ISP. Some have envisioned sweeping change to the way we consume internet with just that sort of idea. Many of these changes involve decentralization and the blockchain. But without net neutrality, even a decentralized, “local” internet provider will run into issues being anything more than a messaging service (albeit a high-tech one). Unfortunately, bringing blockchain to the party isn’t necessarily the end-all solution to our pending net neutrality repeal woes. In fact, we’ve already seen ISP’s tampering with smart contracts and torrent sites, and that’s with FCC protections in place. Blockchain technology will have a hard time propping up our internet after a full dismantling of net neutrality if ISP’s can throttle blockchain networks like they’ll be able to throttle your streaming services.
But it isn’t just neighborhoods where there’s concern over losing net neutrality protections. From a Forbes article, a statement from the American Library Association said, “Net neutrality is essential for library and educational institutions to carry out our missions … The internet has become the primary platform for learning, collaboration, and interaction among students (and educators).” Author of the Forbes piece, Andrew B. Raupp put it another way. Raupp wrote, “without net neutrality, schools could easily have their hands forced toward a smaller range of pedagogical products with more financial backing, as opposed to keeping their classrooms open to a range of tools that offer meaningful educational benefits.” Some teachers already face constraints with teaching due to funding or geography, imagine the condition of education (most-likely public education but private may not be totally safe either) if all of students’ digital learning came courtesy of the school’s internet service provider.
Another quote from Raupp can be applied not just to educators, as it may suggest, but to everyone making decisions about how we access the Internet in the United States. “As educators, our goal is to expose young people to means and methods of problem-solving through experimentation and innovation. Today, we must take up that task with an even greater sense of urgency, because the problems that lie ahead of us — those issues of access, information security and the role we want to allow corporations to play in our daily lives — those problems can only be solved with the kind of innovative thought that STEM fosters in classrooms all across our country and our internet.” STEM programs are intended to train students to be discerning and informed individuals, and these programs would be considerably handicapped without net neutrality. We need to keep access open for all, and by doing so, provide young minds with the skills to make informed decisions. That can only be achieved with net neutrality.
In Part Two, we’ll look at blockchain’s precarious place in the fight for an open and accessible internet. On the one hand, without an open internet, we might be looking at the death of blockchain, at least in the United States. This is especially true if ISPs and their partners decide to take the blacklist/whitelist approach. On the other hand, it may be possible for blockchain to help, should net neutrality actually come to end. Mesh networks, in particular, could benefit from the blockchain, given the chance to succeed.
Consumers need a better way to access internet, especially consumers who already have trouble with access. In Part Two, I’ll go into more detail of how blockchain, while potentially a major force in protecting open internet, is not the silver bullet I was hoping it would be when I started writing this post.
This article was written by Michael Putnam, Writer at MIMIR Blockchain Solutions.
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No, Blockchain Isn’t Net Neutrality’s Silver Bullet: Part One was originally published in Hacker Noon on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.