The internet has become a crucial gateway for accessing information. Just look around Brody Café or wherever you’re reading this piece: People are writing papers, conducting research, reading articles, buying a new pair of shoes or watching TV, all through the internet. Whether it is education, business or entertainment, the internet has become a practical necessity for us to engage in society today. For our democracy and economy to function, it is paramount that people have equal access to the internet.
Last week, Ajit Pai, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and former Verizon lawyer (read: he’s a paid hack), outlined plans to dismantle 2015 Obama-era rules that require internet service providers (ISPs), like Comcast or AT&T, to treat all data that runs through their virtual “pipes” equally. In other words, the 2015 rules were passed to ensure that ISPs cannot intentionally delay certain web content or offer “fast lanes” for content providers willing and able to pay for the privilege.
What might happen without net neutrality
Proponents of net neutrality worry that without the 2015 protections, ISPs would be free to create a system that looks similar to how we pay for cable TV, where subscriptions are limited to a few dozen sites or services. While this can’t happen overnight, the other and more likely possibility is that we will see a shift towards subscriptions that give us unlimited access to certain content, while charging extra for everything else. Skeptical? Well it already exists for mobile data.
We can already see this type of preferential treatment with cellphone data limits. For example, when an AT&T customer accesses their DirecTV Now streaming service, that data does not count towards their plan’s data allocation. T-Mobile lets certain video and music streaming services bypass its data limits, thus selectively giving an advantage to specific content.
This matters in the world of the internet, where companies like Google obsess over ways to reduce loading times by mere seconds. Google’s parent company, Alphabet, released a report in 2016 that claims 53 percent of mobile users leave a site if it takes longer than three seconds to load.
There are also more disturbing ramifications if ISPs are allowed to run rampant in their “innovation” of the internet. In five or 10 years we could see an internet stratified along socioeconomic lines where only those who are wealthy enough to pay can enjoy the myriad of resources available on the web. What if universities like Hopkins had to begin paying more to ensure that their research content was as easily available? What if Super PACs could purchase prioritized access to stream their content or ads more easily, while slowing down others?
People, like Pai, who are working to roll back these protections argue that these scenarios are extreme and that the current regulatory framework stymies investment in new services and stifles innovation. They boast that the competitive market will protect the consumer. Unfortunately for them, and I guess for us, the market for internet providers isn’t.
The internet of the late ‘90s and early 2000s is dead. According to an article in Recode from 2015, only nine percent of the population has a real choice (three or more providers) when it comes to ISPs. Competitive markets no longer exist for ISPs. For most of the country, internet service is effectively a monopoly or a duopoly.
Does net neutrality really exist?
But are we going about the net neutrality debate the right way? Yes and no. The problem is that these “fast lanes” that many net neutrality advocates worry about already effectively exist. Massive content providers, like Google or Facebook, have agreements with ISPs that let them cut out an intermediary stage often referred to as the “internet backbone.” This shaves crucial seconds off of loading times while almost everyone else’s content goes through the “backbone.” This is a huge advantage for large web companies, and it is one of the many reasons that those companies are not as vocal about net neutrality as they were five or 10 years ago. The internet already favors large corporations (surprise!), and it’s a problem that will persist.
Congress must act
As pointed out by Pai and others, the Obama-era rules protecting net neutrality were rushed through the FCC. However, the 2015 net neutrality rules were a necessary measure to help enshrine the principle of equal access for the internet. Just because the FCC under Obama was hasty does not detract from the validity of the net neutrality argument.
Moreover, Pai’s decision to hold a vote on December 14 — one that is expected to pass along party lines — could begin a cycle of uncertainty. When the Democrats next regain Congress and the White House will we see another FCC reversal? It seems likely. And if we begin a cycle where the FCC flips back and forth, we then risk creating further uncertainty for both content providers and ISPs which will reduce investment and innovation across the economy.
The purpose of net neutrality isn’t to protect Netflix, Facebook or Amazon but to ensure that the next revolutionary idea has a relatively equal playing field and a chance to create more jobs and foster competition.
In the current political climate bipartisanship seems impossible, but when it comes to net neutrality — a concept that both Republicans and Democrats should both theoretically be in favour of — we must pass an updated and clear law that will preserve equal access to the internet for millions of Americans.