I haven’t done a political post in some time, as most political topics these days have tended to either focus on foreign affairs (which I’m less knowledgeable about than domestic issues) and Obamacare (which I’ve been hearing about since 2009 and am frankly sick of). But I feel the need to weigh in on one topic that has largely flown under the public radar in recent years: net neutrality.
What exactly is net neutrality? In short, it’s the idea that the Internet should be open and easily accessible, with internet service providers (ISPs, like Comcast or Cox) treating all information equally. Any legal information or material on the internet should be freely accessible to everyone at the same speeds, no matter which ISP (or device) you use to access it. What this means is that an ISP can’t artificially throttle traffic, slowing down or stopping access to one website (like SI.com) in order to encourage users to visit another site (like ESPN.com), or charge you to access one website and not the other.
Supporters of net neutrality stress that the Internet has become such an important part of our daily lives that it needs to be free and open, and companies should not be allowed to manipulate traffic to websites to serve their own interests. A company whose higher-ups are mostly politically liberal, for instance, could block people’s access to websites associated with conservative causes, or vice versa. This constitutes a violation of free-speech rights under the Constitution, they say. The web’s decentralized nature has made it an open book for creative and interesting ideas, and that should not be limited.
Opponents of net neutrality actually make some similar arguments. Many of them support a free and open Internet, but also support the right of service providers to control website traffic and prevent congestion that would result from many users accessing the same sites at the same time. This problem is exacerbated by the rise of richer websites that include high-res pictures and streaming video, which consume more bandwidth. Enabling companies to use network management tools to control network usage could enhance the Internet experience for users and open the door for new business models and revenue streams. Similarly, broadband Internet infrastructure is expensive to build. If content providers can’t charge more to access sites that use a lot of bandwidth, this infrastructure won’t get built, and areas that don’t have access to broadband connections won’t get it anytime soon. Opponents also argue that this isn’t an arena for the government to get involved in, and any legislation should not tell ISPs how to run their network, but rather should merely provide customers with alternatives should they be dissatisfied with their ISP’s service.
The debate over net neutrality took a turn with a recent DC Circuit Court of Appeals ruling. In a nutshell, the decision came down to how ISPs are classified under the law: are they “telecommunications services,” which are subject to FCC nondiscrimination rules concerning common carriers, or are they “information services,” which are not similarly regulated? The court ruled that ISPs are information services, and thus not subject to the aforementioned FCC rules. Obviously, this is a big win for broadband ISPs, who are now able to regulate their traffic as they see fit. Proponents of net neutrality got especially anxious when Netflix reached a deal with Comcast to pay for better speeds on their network, believed to be the first step in the consumer-choice nightmare that they envisioned without net neutrality rules.
However, one key takeaway from this decision is that the court did not strike down the FCC’s authority to make rules governing the Internet. However, the extent to which it can do this is rather uncertain now. Supporters of net neutrality have called for Congress to pass a law reclassifying ISPs as telecommunications services, or to regulate ISPs’ network management practices (which has been tried before with little success).
As you could probably guess from the title of this post, I tend to side with the pro-net neutrality crowd. The Internet is a uniquely open and free media source that has not been subject to the censorship that TV and movies are at times, and is thus a vibrant platform for free expression of ideas and artistic pursuits. In many ways, the Internet has democratized content generation, making it so that many more people, not just the ones with the most money, have a chance to be successful in certain fields. Bands like I Fight Dragons, talented bloggers like Tavi Gevinson, and so many products and projects that have gotten off the ground through Kickstarter, might never have been discovered if not for the Internet’s free and open spirit.
Also, one argument of the anti-neutrality camp is that competition among companies will prevent them from restricting access to websites in the doomsday scenario that pro-neutrality activists envision. But sadly, this is not the case. Most of these companies act as regional monopolies, and customers are stuck with one company depending on where they live. For instance, here in Alpharetta, GA, I’m largely stuck with Comcast as an ISP. I technically have access to AT&T U-Verse, but the speeds are so slow that it makes no sense to pay for it. Back when I lived in Williamsburg, VA, it was Cox or nothing. The only real alternative is to try to find a smaller ISP, but those companies tend to rely on the big companies’ networks to provide their service, so they would be subject to the same controls.
I also have trouble believing that these companies will not abuse their rights (the Comcast-Netflix deal only adds to these fears), and I also find it hard to believe that companies that make billions in net income cannot come up with the money to expand their broadband infrastructures, nor do I take their supposed need for “new revenue streams” seriously.
Regardless of where you stand on this issue, I encourage you to call your Senators and Congressmen and register your opinion. We are at a crossroads in this debate, and your calls and emails will make a difference in the direction this debate moves in the future.