What the Internet as a Public Utility Would Mean for Alternative Networks

6 minute read

Posted by: Joseph Meehan

January 9, 2015

Recently President Barack Obama, through the White House office of the press secretary, released a statement reaffirming his support for net neutrality. The importance of a free and open internet was one of the major aspects of Obama’s campaign, yet there has been little meaningful action on his part to make this a reality. The statement released yesterday rehashes his support for net neutrality and also compels the Federal Communications Commission to classify the internet as a public utility. If this were the case internet service providers would be classified as common carriers and held to certain standards regarding access of use by the general public and privacy of users information, among other things.

The statement cites four basic tenets of net neutrality. Let’s take a look at each one and how they relate to the Darknet.

No Blocking

No user would be blocked from accessing any parts of the internet, as long as it is a legal and reasonable request. This is one of the basic requirements of a common carrier. They must provide access to any party on equal terms when a reasonable request is made. Though there are things on the Darknet that could be considered illegal, accessing the Tor network itself is not illegal and would fall under the category of reasonable requests.

No Throttling

Websites and services could not be throttled on preference. In addition to not being allowed to block Tor network traffic, ISPs would not be able to throttle the traffic either. A deliberate slowdown to discourage users from accessing the Tor network would not be feasible.

Increased Transparency

Increased transparency at both the ISP and the FCC levels would be a huge win for the common citizen. Right now ISPs are monopolizing and deregulating their own market. The internet is a crucial communication tool and our government needs to start treating it as such. This means holding ISPs to a certain level of accountability. It means forcing them to be transparent and upfront with the public about their policies and their actions in the marketplace. This higher level of transparency would also allow us to make sure ISPs are treating all traffic on their networks fairly, including Tor network traffic.

Paid Prioritization

Companies and individuals would be barred from paying for better service for their traffic. Video-streaming giants or large social media services would not be allowed to pay for their traffic to be sped up or for other traffic to be slowed down. This protects smaller sites and things like the Tor network from being marginalized, their traffic pushed aside into the slow lanes.

The Internet as a Public Utility

Classifying the Internet as a public utility and holding ISPs accountable to the standards that electric, gas, phone and freight companies would guarantee an open and free internet with equal access for all on both ends. It’s no secret a free and open internet would benefit the Tor network.

Title II of the Communications Act of 1934 sets out regulations for dominant companies that provide essential public services such as communication and freight companies. So called common carriers, who provide similar services to the public at large, are required by Title II to provide their services to anyone who makes a reasonable request for them. Just like the phone companies before them, and just like the freight companies before the phone companies, internet service providers provide an essential communication service. Everyone deserves to be able to have equal access this important communication tool.

There are some drawbacks to Title II’s use as it applies to broadband services, but it is the best option the government has to work with right now. The provisions in the Communications Act of 1934 are outdated at best when it comes to regulating ISPs. But, while the implementation may need to be updated, the concepts remain applicable. Equal access, transparency and ensuring companies operate with the good of the public in mind are all key to a free and open internet.

Meshnet, the Pirate Internet

Despite FCC regulations against it, pirate radio exists all over the country. There are underground radio transmitters out there who put their broadcasts out without adhering to regulations. There can be stiff penalties for pirate broadcasters, but they still operate in defiance of FCC regulations. The subversive nature of pirate radio reminds me of mesh networks and the Tor network. They are all underground networks that operate outside of the regulations of the FCC. When the net neutrality debate shakes out, whether or not the FCC decides to make the internet a public utility or allow ISPs to run wild without any real regulation, there will likely be a pirate internet just the same as there is pirate radio now. What form it will take remains to be seen, but there could very likely be a pirate meshnet in your local neighborhood before long.

Mesh networks are a decentralized and shared-computing project to free the Internet from the hands of the government and the ISPs at the same time. Another DeepDotWeb article takes a close look at what mesh networks are and goes into detail on some examples of real-world applications. In short, computers connect to each other locally to build a network that exists without the need for phone- and cable-line infrastructure. Right now mesh networks have only been achieved in localized deployments, but there are projects looking to the future where all of our computers would be connected through local mesh networks free from government and private sector regulation.

The very principles of the mesh network set it outside of the whole open and free internet debate. It is a solution that many think would fix the problem once and for all. From local all the way to global applications, mesh networks put the power in the hands of the people to create their own internet communications tool free of centralized regulation. They may end up being a powerful alternative even to a free and open internet.

There are some important parallels with Bitcoin and mesh networks. Decentralization is an important way for the people to take back power once squarely in the hands of the government. A decentralized internet network takes the power of censorship and regulation away from the government, the same as it does for Bitcoin. Alternative currencies like Bitcoin have gained a lot of traction in the last few years. Widespread support and use are just around the corner and the same could be possible for Meshnet applications in the coming years.

Mesh networks would be able to exist right alongside the internet if it was classified as a public utility. There are people out there that have water wheels generating electricity on their property, and they are often able to sell any extra to the electric company at a profit. The same would be true for mesh networks. The ideal situation would be to have a large-scale mesh network everyone could connect to, but having smaller ones in more local applications exist alongside a free and open internet classified as a public utility may be a more realistic future. Which wouldn’t be a bad thing.

Updated: 2015-01-09