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Digital Life: The Trump path to free internet for the poor

What is net neutrality: An explainer

Net neutrality is the idea that nothing gets a fast lane or a road block on the internet. Former president Barack Obama liked it, President Donald Trump doesn't. This video contains images from The Associated Press
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Net neutrality is the idea that nothing gets a fast lane or a road block on the internet. Former president Barack Obama liked it, President Donald Trump doesn't. This video contains images from The Associated Press

The Trump era of internet regulation, or lack thereof, is underway.

Most controversial is the concept of “net neutrality.” That’s the idea that nothing gets a fast lane or a road block — with the exception of kiddie porn and spam — on the internet.

The companies that sell internet access oppose the idea. They want to be able to set priorities for the traffic they say their customers want most, and from providers of content willing to pay extra for express service.

Consumer groups think that’s a horrible idea that will stymie the next Netflix or YouTube and that will give corporate giants a powerful gatekeeper role over which information moves the most freely on the internet — especially the ability to favor their own apps over those of competitors.

President Donald Trump’s pick to head the Federal Communications Commission, Ajit Pai, has quickly worked to dismantle Obama administration moves to promote net neutrality. The FCC voted on party lines this week to begin the reversal.

That’s generated criticism from several places. (Meantime, there are accusations that comments to the agency supporting the FCC’s move against net neutrality is really the work of internet spammers.) “The only real winners will be the cable and phone industries, which will gain yet another way to raise prices for everyone,” Columbia Law School professor Tim Wu wrote for The New York Times.

But Team Trump is pushing back, arguing that net neutrality might serve as a path to bring internet service to people who can’t afford to buy it on the consumer market. For instance, an internet service provider, or ISP, could prioritize its own content, especially advertising, as a way to pay for otherwise “free” service to poor Americans.

“There is a subset of people who are truly poor. … who need access to basic kinds of services, and I don’t think they should have to pay for them,” Roslyn Layton, who served on Trump’s FCC transition team and is a visiting fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, told Ars Technica in an interview. “If companies want to pay for them to do it and put advertising behind it, I don’t see the harm.”

Layton told the site that the idea of “zero rating,” where ISPs exempt some websites and online services from data caps, could power the change. Those ISPs would then take payment from websites in exchange for letting users get to their sites without digging into their data limits.

So imagine if left Daily Kos paid Spectrum so that traffic to its site was essentially free to readers and the ultra-right Breitbart News Network. Or vice versa. It’s easy to see how access to information might get skewed.

Trump's homeland security adviser Tom Bossert outlined some parts of an executive order aimed at modernizing and improving the nation's computer networks on May 11, 2017.

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