One bitcoin is now worth over $9,500 USD, but any cryptocurrency enthusiast worth their salt will tell you it’s still early days; Bitcoin has only been around since 2009, after all.
Cyptocurrencies are still in their infancy. Now, experts worry that repealing net neutrality protections could harm them by allowing service providers to restrict access to key access portals or make them more expensive to use.
On December 14, the US Federal Communications Commission will vote to repeal Obama-era protections that classified the internet under Title II of the Telecommunications Act, which allowed the agency to ban practices like speed throttling and “fast lanes.” This net neutrality legislation enshrined in policy that service providers should treat all content as equal. Its removal would allow companies to decide which traffic to prioritize.
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Here’s what that has looked like in the past. Verizon banned Google Wallet in 2011 (it’s since been reinstated) because the provider was working on its own payment service. In 2014, Netflix was forced to pay Comcast a premium for faster service to customers. Years earlier, in 2007, Comcast also throttled torrent traffic. In all of these cases, usability was degraded.
What does this have to do with cryptocurrencies? Well, cryptocurrencies are money on the internet, and many people buy and sell them on established, public websites called exchanges. While no service providers have said they would do this, any ISP that decides it doesn’t want Bitcoin on its network could throttle access speeds to exchanges, or charge a premium, or block them entirely.
“The average person goes to Coinbase to buy Bitcoin, Ethereum, or Litecoin—the average on-ramp is an exchange, and those are easy to block,” said Marvin Ammori, a lawyer who is on the board of digital advocacy group Fight for the Future, over the phone. “If Comcast is the monopoly provider in an area, the provider could decide there’s a preferred Bitcoin exchange.”
According to Cornell University computer science professor Emin Gün Sirer, even if popular sites like Coinbase can pony up and pay a service provider for faster traffic in the name of good business, individual uses of cryptocurrencies could still suffer.
“Peer-to-peer applications may be greatly affected because they’re not in the top 100 most popular destinations on the web,” Sirer said over the phone. “Providers can make the case that supporting those non-top-100 services costs more, and users have to bear that cost.”
“My worry is it will affect the ability to run your own node,” Sirer continued. A “node” is one of many computers that communicate with each other to run the decentralized network of a cryptocurrency. Throttling nodes would require a service provider to manage traffic at the IP level, Sirer noted, and not simply look for a particular protocol.
Cryptocurrency investors, alongside internet freedom advocates and academics, are understandably worried that the end of net neutrality repeals could negatively impact their business.
"The blockchain and cryptocurrency space is all about developing new peer-to-peer, internet protocol—exactly the kind of protocols that [internet providers] have a history of blocking,” Nick Grossman, general manager at venture capital firm Union Square Ventures, which has invested in several cryptocurrency ventures including Coinbase, wrote me in an email. “So we should definitely worry that the FCC's dismantling of the open internet rules could harm innovation in the blockchain and cryptocurrency ecosystem."
What can people in cryptocurrency do to ensure that net neutrality repeals don’t harm their pet tech? One option is calling an elected representative, or getting involved in campaigns that seek to change policy-makers’ minds about the debate (like Battle for the Net or Fight for the Future). “We have to fight this at the political level,” Sirer said.
After all, if Bitcoin is everything its proponents claim, this is technology with world-changing potential. It would be tragic to see it wither thanks to crass profiteering.
“In the past, there’s been an antagonistic relationship between internet service providers and peer-to-peer services such as BitTorrent,” said Holmes Wilson, co-founder of Fight For the Future. “If this goes through, the ISPs could destroy Bitcoin and Ethereum as consumer applications without even trying.”
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