Do ISPs Abuse Their Power?
Every day, the majority of us use the internet through several different internet service providers, but what we may not think about whilst using this service is how much control these companies have over our experience.
AT&T recently launched their rival to the Google Fiber service and subsequently looked for a way to further monetize on their offering. For an extra $29 on top of the $70 monthly charge, you can buy your privacy back from them. Otherwise expect online adverts and promotions through the mail and via email from AT&T. This is called the Internet Preferences Scheme and AT&T stated that by being part of this you agree to allow AT&T to monitor your browsing “Independently of your browser’s privacy settings regarding cookies, do-not-track and private browsing. If you opt-in to AT&T Internet Preferences, AT&T will still be able to collect and use your Web browsing information independent of those settings.”
It is clear here that they do not care about user privacy. As of 2006, all ISPs within the European Union were required to store data on users’ actions for 6 to 24 months. This directive has since been removed, but some states implemented their own laws such as The Data Retention Regulations of 2009 which required UK ISPs to hold data for 18 months. This data was apparently confidential, but it is not at all hard to imagine companies salivating at the thought of accessing it.
Some ISPs have a much easier chance to abuse their power than others. The city of Hull in England, for example, is only served by a single provider, KC. Unlike the rest of the country, there is no British Telecom line and as a result has a complete monopoly over the area. This would allow the company to manage business their own way and makes it easier for them to take advantage of their customers. However, they have been ISPA Award finalists for five years running and won ‘Best Customer Experience’ award in 2013, proving they are not all bad.
After British Prime Minister David Cameron demanded that ISPs put measures in place to protect children from stumbling across pornography, O2 implemented blocks for websites they deemed inappropriate for kids under the age of 18. The websites that fell in to this “inappropriate” category? The British Library, Childline (a free confidential counseling service for children), The National Society For Prevention Of Cruelty To Children, The Samaritans (a charity aimed at providing emotional support for those in distress or at risk of suicide) and many government websites. Of course after this came to the public’s attention, many of these websites were removed from the blacklist. British Telecom also came under fire after choosing to block “sites where the main purpose is to provide information on subjects such as respect for a partner, abortion, gay and lesbian lifestyle, contraceptive, sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy.” This was seen by many as homophobic and completely unnecessary.
Net neutrality is currently an issue for many people. If ISPs have no requirement to treat traffic equally then they can in theory charge different rates for what people use. Even throttling back speeds or outright blocking access to services that they offer alternatives to would be an option. Possibly the most well-known example of this is between Comcast, Verizon and Netflix where claims were made that some companies were throttling the speeds of the popular media streaming website until they agreed to pay more. Verizon has its own on demand service so it is easy to see why they would wish to slow down Netflix traffic. One user connected to a VPN service and demonstrated the sudden surge in speed, which supports these claims.
It’s hardly surprising that internet service providers seek to use any advantage they can to profit more. The FCC is set to vote on a net neutrality plan today so we can hopefully begin to see huge changes in the way these companies adapt to the vote. Could we see them finding other methods of profiting that the public find immoral or will they become accepting of the ruling and drop the issue? I think the former is unfortunately far more likely.
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