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Net Neutrality: Party Politics and Consumer Concerns

Net neutrality in the U.S. is a bi-partisan issue being fought in a very partisan manner. It was introduced in the Democrat Obama-years, and abandoned by the Republican Trump-installed FCC chairman Ajit Pau. Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass. filed a procedural petition that would allow a debate on overturning the FCC ruling via the Congressional Review Act. To succeed, this would require the support of the Senate, followed by a vote in the House, and finally the agreement of the president.

The Senate voted Wednesday and the first hurdle has been overcome. The motion needed a simple majority of 51 votes. The Democrats were confident: there are 49 Democrats in the Senate -- Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine had promised support; and Sen. John McCain, R-AZ, was forced to be absent through illness, providing a basic majority

In the event, the Senate voted by 52 to 47 to open the debate. Three Republicans joined with Democrats: Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, Sen. John Kennedy of Louisiana and Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska. The debate will now go to the House of Representatives, but it is unlikely to go any further. Republicans dominate the House -- and in the unlikely event they agree to re-instate net neutrality, it will almost certainly not be accepted by President Trump.

Right now, net neutrality is, and is likely to remain, dead along purely political partisan lines. But outside of Washington it is not a partisan issue. Sen Markey points out in a twee that 82% of republicans, 90% of democrats, and 86% of all Americans support the concept of net neutrality (statistics from the Program for Public Consultation at the University of Maryland).

The issue can be characterized by universal equal and full access to the internet versus a more efficient and better managed internet. Net neutrality holds that the internet should be equally accessible by and to everyone, always. Opponents hold that some control by the communications companies, particularly the ability to set differential prices, will lead to greater investment in the internet infrastructure and better broadband. The problem with the latter argument is that the communications companies have a history of using such powers to their own benefit and the cost of others.

"Make no mistake," warns Sean McGrath, online privacy expert at BestVPN; "the abolition of net neutrality will erode the democratic fabric that binds the Internet together. It will allow internet service providers and cable companies to dictate the winners and losers in the digital world and it will give a very small number of market players near-limitless power, stifling the rights of citizens that cannot afford to play by their rules."

The fear is that ISPs will block or slow down selected services unless the user pays a premium.

Francis Dinha, CEO and co-founder of the open source VPN protocol OpenVPN, believes that many companies will be forced to re-evaluate their business models since consumers are unlikely to pay for services that have traditionally been free. 

"With this in mind," he comments, "there are solutions for users to get around blocking or slowdown. Marketers can use a VPN service that supports strong encryption and good obfuscation techniques to circumvent any slowdown or blocking of any public internet service. It will be very difficult for ISPs to slow down or block a VPN service that supports advanced obfuscation techniques." Note that the VPN industry is likely to be the major non-ISP beneficiary of the end of net neutrality.

There are also specific security concerns over the demise of net neutrality. One is a potential increase in fraudulent activity. If users are forced to pay for better services, the paid accounts will more likely be shared among family and friends. Once they are shared, they are more likely to be stolen by hackers.

"Up to 25 percent of video streaming subscribers share passwords," explains Vanita Pandey, VP of strategy and product marketing at ThreatMetrix. "If the end of net neutrality results in the sluggish Netflix experiences some predict, friends and family will pass around credentials for the fastest broadband account, which will inevitably get posted online, where they'll join more than 9 billion other stolen credentials -- names, addresses, passwords, PIN codes and more -- available to fraudsters on the dark web. As it stands, wayward login credentials will cost streaming companies $650 million in lost potential revenue this year. Across all industries, cybercrime fueled by stolen identity credentials will result in global losses of $3 trillion or more."

After Wednesday's vote, net neutrality activists are jubilant. "This is a historic victory for the free and open Internet, and a major step forward for the future of free expression and democracy," announced Evan Greer, deputy director of Fight for the Future. The reality, however, is that this vote will probably have no ultimate effect on the FCC's ruling against net neutrality -- that would probably require a change in the political landscape before any legislation cements the process.

This is now a purely partisan political issue -- and the only real beneficiary of Wednesday's vote is the Democratic party. The debate now goes to the House of Representatives, where net neutrality will almost certainly be confirmed as dead. But with so much consumer support, Democrats will hope that voters will punish Republican politicians who go against their wishes in the upcoming mid-term elections.

Related: California Bill Seeks to Adopt Strict Net Neutrality Despite FCC Ruling 

Related: FCC Says Website Downtime Caused by DDoS Attacks 

Related: Sophisticated Phishing Attacks Target Internet Freedom Activists 

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Kevin Townsend is a Senior Contributor at SecurityWeek. He has been writing about high tech issues since before the birth of Microsoft. For the last 15 years he has specialized in information security; and has had many thousands of articles published in dozens of different magazines – from The Times and the Financial Times to current and long-gone computer magazines.