It’s the end of 2015, and one fact about the internet is quickly becoming clear this year: Americans’ freedom to access the open internet is rapidly dissolving.
Broadband access is declining, data caps are becoming commonplace, surveillance is increasing, and encryption is under attack.
This is not merely my opinion. The evidence is everywhere; the walls are closing in from all sides. The net neutrality victory of early this year has rapidly been tempered by the fact that net neutrality doesn’t matter if you don’t have solid access to said ‘net.
A Pew Research Center survey released earlier this week showed that at-home broadband adoption has actually decreased over the last two years, from 70 percent of people to 67 percent of people. Among black Americans, that number has dropped from 62 percent to 54 percent; among rural residents, the number has dropped from 60 percent to 55 percent.
There’s a relatively simple explanation for these stats: The percentage of people who have only a smartphone plan instead of broadband internet at home has increased from 8 percent in 2013 to 13 percent in 2015; among black Americans it has nearly doubled from 10 percent to 19 percent; among rural residents it has gone from 9 to 15 percent.
It doesn’t take an economist to suss out why this is happening: Broadband is expensive, smartphone data is expensive, and at some point you’ve got to make some tough choices. Pew notes that people who go smartphone-only are likely to be poorer and often have to "cancel or suspend service due to financial constraints" and that the most common reason people don't have broadband internet is its high cost.
Many Americans may soon be left with an insecure, surveilled, and capped internet connection dominated by broadband and cellular providers that funnel traffic to the companies they’ve made deals with
The problem is that smartphone internet is not equivalent to home internet. Pew didn’t collect this information, but an unlimited mobile data plan in the United States is increasingly endangered and exceedingly rare. The 3 percent of Americans who have cut their broadband cord in the last two years replaced it with a mobile connection that limits how much they access the internet.
Those who still have home internet connections aren’t immune, of course. A loophole, oversight, or by-design flaw in the net neutrality rules (depending on who you ask) has created a system where both data caps and “zero rating” of data (meaning accessing certain sites and services doesn’t count against the data cap) are increasingly common and legal until the FCC rules otherwise.
In 2015 America, there’s a good chance that if you have the opportunity to buy at-home broadband at all, you can only buy it from one provider. It is likely expensive and potentially restrictive. If you opt for a mobile plan, your data cap is likely extremely low and potentially comes with the inherent traffic funneling that zero rating creates.
And then there’s the steps the federal government has taken to make the internet less free. Last week, Congress and President Obama made the Cybersecurity Information Sharing Act a law by including it in a massive budget bill (as an extra gift, Congress stripped away some of the few privacy provisions in what many civil liberties groups are calling a “surveillance bill”). CISA incentivizes private companies to share data with the federal government should such data contain any “cyber threats,” a term so broadly defined that it can apply to any criminal activity and can also apply to people who have had their accounts coopted by hackers to send spam messages. The true effects of the law likely won’t be known for many years.
Finally, the FBI and NSA have taken strong stands against encryption, one of the few ways that activists, journalists, regular citizens, and yes, criminals and terrorists can communicate with each other without the government spying. Opposition to citizen access to encryption has become so pervasive within the government that Hillary Clinton actively campaigned at Saturday’s debate for a “Manhattan-like project” to break encryption.
And so many, many Americans may soon be left with an insecure, surveilled, and capped internet connection dominated by broadband and cellular providers that funnel traffic to the companies they’ve made deals with. How do you feel about that?