Is the Internet a common good? Is it a luxury or a necessity of modern life? These are the questions that surround net neutrality. Over the past few weeks, you have probably heard the term “net neutrality” thrown around quite a bit. From blogs to podcasts to everyday news sources it is everywhere. The reality is that whatever ends up happening with net neutrality is going to impact all of our lives in a big way. It is a battle for Internet freedom between those who use the Internet and those who give us access to it. Here is what you need to know.
What is Net Neutrality?
Net neutrality is a philosophy about the Internet. It is the idea that the Internet should be provided equally to all who access it, regardless of who they are or what they are using the Internet for. In other words, it is the principle that any entity regulating the Internet (i.e. the U.S. government or your Internet Service Provider) should not be able to alter the strength or quality of your Internet connection. For many of you reading that definition, the idea of net neutrality must seem like a no-brainer. The problem is whenever there is an issue surrounding regulation of private companies there are two bands of thinking: those against government regulations being imposed on private industry and those who think that, if unchecked, private companies will act purely out of self-interest.
So, where does net neutrality stand today? In short, as of June 2015 net neutrality is in place and the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is regulating Internet Service Providers. The reason why this is possible is quite fascinating. In February of 2015, after millions of petitions to do so, the FCC reclassified the Internet as a telecommunications service. By reclassifying it as a telecommunications service, the Internet Service Providers now fell under the more regulated umbrella of companies affected by Title II of the Communications Act of 1934. This action gives the FCC the authority to investigate any claim that an ISP is affecting their customers Internet connectivity. However, in light of recent administrative changes in the U.S. government, the newly appointed FCC commissioner Ajit Varadaraj Pai is advocating for rolling back government regulation of ISP’s. This attempted transition is not coming easy, however, as companies, politicians, and the public seems divided on the issue. Let us take a look at the arguments being made by both sides.
For Net Neutrality
The list of pro net neutrality organizations is overwhelming. From human rights organizations such as the ACLU to prominent politicians to tech companies such as Twitter, Netflix, and Reddit, it would appear that support for net neutrality is all but unanimous. The reasons though are not as altruistic as they might seem.
Take Netflix for example. The ability to stream high quality video is what the company is built on, but it also requires a significant amount of bandwidth. In a world without net neutrality, ISP’s could charge Netflix in order to allow the streaming company to maintain strong Internet speeds. Think of it like a toll road that allows you to get to where you are going quicker, but you have to pay a little extra. Alternatively, if there is no net neutrality and ISP’s begin charging high bandwidth companies, it could help Netflix to create a monopoly. Netflix is thriving and as a result could afford to pay a bit more to bolster their Internet speeds over competitors.
The arguments for net neutrality extend well past streaming speeds and your ability to binge Orange is the New Black. If ISP’s have no net neutrality regulations they could throttle your Internet connection (reduce the strength) based on the content you are trying to view. Proponents of net neutrality argue that this would give ISP’s the ability to dictate what a user can and cannot view online. Many people believe this would allow Internet companies to shape an online experience that caters to them…and to their wallets.
A recent study has shown that tolerance for slow loading speeds has plummeted in the United States. Think about the last time you tried to load a video or website and were met with buffering or a blank loading screen. Faster Internet speeds have led to a zero tolerance of slow connections. As a result, if your connection to a particular website is being throttled by an ISP you are likelier than ever to simply try a different site offering a similar product. Therefore, ISP’s would be able to shape what their users are viewing and what sites they are using, a power that many feel would be abused.
Against Net Neutrality
While there is an impressive list of proponents of net neutrality, the organizations and people against it are surprisingly robust. Of course most ISP’s such as Comcast, AT&T, and Verizon are against net neutrality, but there are also a number of notable great thinkers. Both Peter Thiel, one of the world’s most impressive entrepreneurs, and Gary Becker, a Nobel Prize-winning economist, believe regulation of ISP’s would be a huge mistake. Furthermore, several civil rights groups such as the National Urban League and the League of United Latin American Citizens have expressed opposition to net neutrality.
One of the most prominent arguments against net neutrality is that it would reduce the growth of Internet infrastructure. ISP’s argue that they should have the right to charge companies that use significantly more data, and that the added revenue would allow continued growth of infrastructure and therefore Internet speeds. Civil rights organizations feel that the reduced investment in infrastructure would have the strongest effect on urban communities, where fast but inexpensive Internet speeds are most needed. If net neutrality exists, Internet companies say they will not be able to invest in expanding infrastructure because there would not be a surefire way for them to get a return on that investment, except by increasing prices of their services.
Opponents of net neutrality also feel that the regulations are unnecessary. They argue that prior to the adoption of net neutrality in 2015 there had not been any major instances of ISP’s abusing their control over content, so why fix what isn’t broken? Furthermore, in order for the FCC to properly regulate the ISP’s the regulatory commission would have to increase spending dramatically, a cost that could be obtained through increased taxes. Those against net neutrality see this as frivolous government spending and an overreach of government control.
The argument of net neutrality is an interesting one that embodies a much larger argument that is present in our country concerning the government and its right to regulate private companies. The Internet is an omnipresent source of information that gives shape, voice, and a platform for our opinions. It is almost undoubtedly a necessity for modern life, but does that make it a right? While it is true that so far there has not been widespread abuse of an Internet without net neutrality, is it really so farfetched to think that ISP’s, like most companies in our free market economy, are susceptible to bribery or favoritism of websites that benefit them? Furthermore, is it so difficult to imagine a future without net neutrality where political organizations that have the money to spare receive preferential data speeds? Before you ask yourself how you feel on net neutrality, you should ask yourself the following. Who stands to gain the most in a world without net neutrality, those providing our Internet or all of us who depend on it?