Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you probably know that net neutrality died last week, and you probably have some sort of opinion about it. Between those celebrating the Federal Communications Commission’s vote, and those who believe this marks the end to free speech and the internet as we know it, everyone seems to have a strong opinion about the results of this vote. While it’s easy to get caught up in your own opinion, and the heated debates seem to only enforce people’s pre-established beliefs, I’m going to take this time to do a comprehensive overview of both sides to the situation, and what this vote really means for the future of the internet.
Net neutrality is the principle that prevents internet service providers (ISPs) like AT&T, Comcast and Verizon from speeding up, slowing down or blocking any content, applications or websites you want to use. In other words, with net neutrality all internet traffic has to be treated equally, and ISPs cannot pick and choose which content to give priority to.
Supporters of net neutrality believe that it preserves peoples freedom to access all the information and media on the internet, without the ISP monopolies dictating what can be accessed and viewed and how quickly. Opponents argue that net neutrality chokes competition and innovation, and slows down internet service as a whole.
A brief history of net neutrality
Some form of net neutrality rules have been in place for over a decade, however the belief that net neutrality as we know it now is “the way that the internet has always worked” is somewhat faulty. These rules were first developed by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) under Title I, which means that the internet was treated like an “information service,” and regulators could only impose very light rules and regulations. This was first put into place in 2005, and then updated under the Obama administration in 2010. Four years after these updates, Obama’s FCC voted again to switch ISPs from Title I to Title II, meaning that they were then treated as natural monopolies like utilities, and government regulators could provide these companies with specific rules for prices and methods of running their businesses. The regulations that resulted were relatively relaxed, but certainly more heavy-handed than they had been under Title I.
This new set of net neutrality rules was heatedly opposed by republicans, so it’s not too surprising that when President Trump took office, a plan was almost immediately put in place to return to a less regulated framework.
Now, before we get into the nitty gritty let’s start with something we can all agree on: internet service usually sucks. ISPs are among the most hated companies, and to make it worse most U.S. cities only have a couple to choose from. Everyone uses the internet these days, and turns out its just as slow for democrats as it is for republicans. So we all have the common goal of solving this problem, however there are two very different approaches to it.
The root of FCC Chairman Ajit Pai’s opinion is based largely on what is commonly called the “last mile” problem. This phrase refers to the final leg of a telecommunications networks that, in this case, delivers internet services to customers. So the “last mile” is when you get into neighborhoods, and have to lay down the wires that go to each individual customer. This is where things get really expensive, complicated, and slow, and it’s why there are so few ISP businesses to choose from.
Supporters of the FCC’s decision believe that allowing ISPs to favor some content will reduce the load in the pipeline, and thus speed things up. The idea is that ISPs will create new service packages which will reduce the upfront costs of the last mile, increase competition and investment in infrastructure, and improve overall service.
Of course, this argument has been met with an uproar from people who believe that ISPs will use this newfound power for their own gain, at the expense of competitors and customers alike. So lets dive into this line of thought…
Team Open Internet
Allowing ISPs to discriminate between content will doubtlessly result in larger companies like Netflix, Apple, or Amazon floating higher to the top by simply paying ISPs for higher speeds. The means that smaller, or newer companies will have a distinct disadvantage as they may not have the funds to hit the “fast lanes” with Netflix. This issue is exacerbated by the fact that many ISPs have a conflict of interests with the content providers using their services. For example, Comcast has a significant investment in Vox and BuzzFeed, and owns NBCUniversal outright. Without net neutrality, there is nothing stopping Comcast from favoring these companies and throttling its competitors. This could reduce opportunities for small businesses and entrepreneurs who rely on the open internet to launch their businesses, create markets, advertise their products and services, and reach customers.
An even more disturbing possibility is that ISPs can now block or throttle content and political views that they don’t agree with. Websites that publish radical or controversial news, and many minority groups could see their content slowed down and access to their viewers and customers blocked. This presents a huge public service problem, as many minority groups rely on open internet to “organize, access economic and educational opportunities, and fight back against systemic discrimination,” as stated by free press. It is, however important to note that a large number of major news and media outlets, including Vox and BuzzFeed, publish and promote a significant amount of content in support of minority groups.
While the FCC assures us that consumers’ open internet protections — no blocking, no throttling, no slow lanes — will remain alive and well, and ISPs have pledged to uphold these principles, many people remain unconvinced that this will be enforced, or enforceable.
In reality, it’s too soon to know exactly what the results of this decision will be, and the battle is still not completely won. The FCC’s decision is being challenged in several ways, with the CRA resolution – a vehicle to overturn the FCC’s net neutrality repeal with a simple majority vote in both the Senate and House – being the most promising.
Who do you think is right? Where will the internet end up without net neutrality? Leave a comment below!