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Neutral in reverse

Technology | A court overturns the internet’s neutrality rule—for now

Issue: "Getting paid not aid," Feb. 22, 2014

A federal appeals court in mid-January struck down the authority of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission to enforce “net neutrality” on the internet. Some observers said the decision would wreak havoc online, allowing giants like Google or Yahoo to grab additional internet market share from competitors.

What is net neutrality? And what difference does it make? Net neutrality is the principle that broadband providers—such as AT&T, Comcast, or Verizon—deliver web content with equal access and at equal speeds. In other words, your internet service provider should not block or slow down a competitor’s website, or stream Netflix videos more quickly than Amazon videos.

Advocates of net neutrality say the FCC’s enforcement of the rule has kept the internet on a level playing field, preventing internet service providers from “picking winners and losers.” In theory, they could cut deals giving companies like Google or Facebook increased bandwidth, while relegating competitors and startups to a lower (and slower) tier. Craig Aaron, the president of Free Press, an internet policy organization, said the death of net neutrality means “the biggest broadband providers will race to turn the open and vibrant web into something that looks like cable TV. They’ll establish fast lanes for the few giant companies that can afford to pay exorbitant tolls and reserve the slow lanes for everyone else.”

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Not everyone sees it that way. “Net neutrality is another example of over-regulation that flies in the face of every proper tenet of infrastructure wealth creation and expansion of free speech and consumer welfare,” said Wayne Crews, a technology expert at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a free market think tank. In this view, Comcast and Verizon have little incentive to block or slow down certain websites because that would likely drive away customers.

The January court ruling probably isn’t the final word: The FCC could appeal, or try enforcing net neutrality on other legal footing.

Being followed

Kaczor58/Shutterstock

As more drivers use GPS systems built into cars and navigation devices, the more likely their whereabouts are stored in a company database somewhere. The U.S. Government Accountability Office recently interviewed representatives from 10 automobile and mobile navigation companies—including Chrysler, Ford, Toyota, TomTom, and Google (its map service)—and found they abided by some but not all recommended practices when it comes to collecting, storing, and sharing customer location data.

The companies said they generally collect location data in order to provide location-based services, like providing turn-by-turn directions or listing nearby gasoline prices. One automaker said it collects car diagnostic data to determine if driving near power plants, for example, affects the vehicle’s operation. However, the GAO found some companies do not fully specify how data might be shared with third parties, and some don’t allow customers to ask for their data to be deleted. —D.J.D.

Malaria laser

Rice University handout

Scientists at Rice University in Houston have invented a laser device that could make malaria diagnosis in developing nations quicker and cheaper. Current malaria tests rely on a blood sample and cost about $1, but the new device detects the parasite in blood cells by beaming a low-powered laser through the skin of a person’s finger. The researchers, publishing in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in January, say each malaria diagnosis should take seconds and cost only 50 cents. —D.J.D.

Daniel James Devine
Daniel James Devine

Daniel is a reporter for WORLD who covers science, technology, and other topics in the Midwest from his home base in Indiana. Follow Daniel on Twitter @DanJamDevine.

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