Today, millions of people are protesting the FCC’s plan to repeal the net neutrality rules that were put in place by the former Obama administration.
In this “Battle for the Net,” they are joined by many prominent groups and companies, including Amazon, BitTorrent, Dropbox, Netflix, and even Pornhub.
Under the present net neutrality rules, there’s a clear standard that prevents ISPs from blocking, throttling, and paid prioritization of “lawful” traffic. In addition, they allow Internet providers to be regulated as carriers under Title II.
If the current net neutrality rules disappear, some fear that throttling and ‘fast lanes’ for some services will become commonplace.
Historically, there is a strong link to between net neutrality and online piracy. The throttling concerns were first brought to the forefront in 2007 when Comcast started to slow down both legal and unauthorized BitTorrent traffic, in an affort to ease the load on its network.
When we uncovered this atypical practice, it ignited the first broad discussion on net neutrality. This became the setup for the FCC’s Open Internet Order which was released three years later.
For its part, the Open Internet Order formed the foundation of the net neutrality rules the FCC adopted in 2015. The big change compared to the earlier rules was that ISPs can be regulated as carriers under Title II.
While pirates may have helped to get the ball rolling, they’re no longer a player in the current net neutrality debate. Under the current rules, ISPs are allowed to block any unlawful traffic, including copyright infringing content.
In fact, in the net neutrality order the FCC has listed the following rule:
“Nothing in this part prohibits reasonable efforts by a provider of broadband Internet access service to address copyright infringement or other unlawful activity.”
The FCC reasons that copyright infringement hurts the US economy, so Internet providers are free to take appropriate measures against this type of traffic. This includes the voluntary censoring of pirate sites, something the MPAA and RIAA are currently lobbying for.
“For example, the no-blocking rule should not be invoked to protect copyright infringement, which has adverse consequences for the economy, nor should it protect child pornography. We reiterate that our rules do not alter the copyright laws and are not intended to prohibit or discourage voluntary practices undertaken to address or mitigate the occurrence of copyright infringement,” the FCC explains.
That gives ISPs plenty of leeway. ISPs could still block access to The Pirate Bay and other alleged pirate sites as a voluntary anti-piracy measure, for example. And throttling BitTorrent traffic across the board is also an option, as long as it’s framed as reasonable network management.
The worrying part is that ISPs themselves can decide what traffic or sites are unlawful. This could potentially lead to overblocking. Currently, there is no indication that any will, but the net neutrality rules do not preventing these companies from doing so.
This glaring “copyright loophole” doesn’t mean that the net neutrality rules are irrelevant. They’re certainly not perfect, but there are many aspects that benefit the public and companies alike.
What should be clear though clear though, is that the fight for net neutrality is no longer a pirate’s fight.
While the current protest is reminiscent of the massive “Internet blackout” revolt against the SOPA anti-piracy law five years ago, where many pirate sites joined in as well, you won’t see many of these sites calling for net neutrality today. Not out of personal interest, at least.