Written by Melanie Gutzmann, News Editor
Network neutrality has spent a lot of time in the headlines recently. It holds that Internet Service Providers, or ISPs, should act as neutral conveyors of the requested service, and may not infringe on your right to access all content on the internet equally. Additionally, ISP’s may not speed up or slow down your broadband speed when accessing certain applications or websites or require websites to pay to use so-called “fast lanes”. While it may seem that interference by ISP’s has never been a consumer problem in the past, some ISP’s have been toeing the line for far too long, and it has never seemed to be in the interest of the consumer.
First, to clarify some background information about the politics of the internet, and who decides what is allowed. The Federal Communications Commission is a board of five commissioners that regulate all U.S. telecommunications, and each member is elected by the President and confirmed by the Senate for 5 year terms. In the past several years, the FCC has taken it upon itself to define broadband communications as being a subset of general telecommunications, essentially giving itself the authority to regulate the internet. Although this definition has been challenged several times, their decision has more or less held up in district courts. However, the internet is an incredibly multifaceted source of information, communication, and entertainment, and figuring out where to place the boundaries between the consumer and provider is difficult more often that not.
The question of where these limits should be placed first popped up about a decade ago. For example, back in 2007, Comcast started blocking network traffic from BitTorrent. Initially, they completely denied the allegations, but later admitted to “only” throttling the traffic. The FCC ordered Comcast to end interference, but Comcast appealed that it was their right to do so and eventually, in 2010, a D.C. court ruled in favor of Comcast. Later, in 2012, mobile provider AT&T started blocking clients from using FaceTime unless they paid extra for a “Mobile Share” plan. It took only four months of public backlash for AT&T to reverse their decision, but district courts again and again called into question the FCC’s ability to impose orders on Comcast, AT&T, and Verizon, just by virtue of defining themselves to be able to do so. It is an unclear path, but the FCC pressed on.
Fast forward to 2014, and the FCC is suddenly proposing a new concept: fast and slow lanes of the internet. The news quickly hits many new outlets as well as some late-night shows such as John Oliver’s “Last Week Tonight”, which called for its viewers to write to the FCC in support of net neutrality. That month, the FCC received comments from more than 4 million people, of which more than 99 percent supported net neutrality. On top of public support, President Obama advocated to reclassify the internet as a utility (so that ISP’s may not place limits on or discriminate usage), two Republican congressmen introduced a net neutrality bill, and even former FCC chairman Tom Wheeler expressed support for an open internet. The overwhelming cry of opposition to the plan worked in favor of the people, and In February of 2015, the FCC used its Title II authority (declaring internet a utility) to declare net neutrality.
Everything is calm for about 2 years, with courts protecting net neutrality even against the blunt force of all of the nation’s major carriers, until the FCC’s new chairman, Ajit Pai, announces that he will be rolling back net neutrality. His argument is that by imposing stricter regulations on ISP’s, the companies will not be incentivized “to build out Internet access to a lot of parts of the country, in low-income, urban and rural areas,” thereby preventing vital improvements to the nation’s infrastructure, which could pose a threat to the nation’s future. Additionally, he argues that the internet initially flourished under laissez-faire conditions, and that it was unnecessary and hindersome to retrospectively add “heavy-handed government regulation”. Instead, Pai proposes that ISP’s should voluntarily agree to net neutrality, and that they should be responsible for reporting their own “deceptive and unfair trade practices” to the Federal Trade Commision.
However, it is doubtful that the large providers will risk their reputation to self-report infringements on a rule that hinders their field of movement. After all, giving ISP’s the power to control content, even if that power goes unused, runs the risk of having suppliers constrict the supply of a good in order create an artificial demand to increase their profit margins (such as when AT&T tried to restrict access to FaceTime, a globally popular service, and have consumers pay more in order to access it). By imposing content rules, ISP’s inadvertently force their own values on the consumer. The Internet has become a common good such as highways — we all pay in order to use them, but those that maintain the highways cannot tell us not to drive certain places. They also cannot purposely set artificially slower roads to certain destinations and require businesses in that destination to pay to have the road “fixed” so that consumers might once again become motivated to visit their town again.
Where any one person stands on the subject of net neutrality is dependant on their own values and experiences, but one issue looms larger than others: can the free market curb ISPs to the people’s will by itself, or is government regulation required? Will consumers naturally choose ISPs that allow for greater freedoms, thus discouraging ISPs with policies that infringe on net neutrality? Or is it possible that all ISPs will eventually adopt anti-net neutrality policies, leaving the consumer with no viable alternatives? Only the future will answer that question, but in the meantime, spreading information about net neutrality and its significance to all consumers is the only way to get more people involved in advocating either side, and to not let the government make decisions without substantial support.