Whether you like it or not, your internet connection is becoming more and more of a political issue. No, we’re not talking about the NSA reading all those drunk tweets you deleted. We are talking about net neutrality. The mainstreaming of the web has led it to serve as one of the principal battlegrounds during the last couple of presidential elections, and it’s since become a topic for debate in and of itself.
The issue at hand is connection speeds. Your day-to-day online life is already affected by varying upload and download speeds, lagging your streaming video and delaying your Facebook posts joining the news feed. Right now, that’s a matter of data caps, but also of usage. 80 percent of Americans are online, and only 2 percent are physically incapable of logging onto a broadband connection.
According to the United Nations Human Rights Council, internet access is now considered to be a basic human right. Which means it’s a necessity, not a luxury. However, it’s a necessity which lies in the hands of private companies, who in a free market have the right to make money off of the service they provide. We’ve come a long ways since the more Wild-West, frontier days of the early internet. These days, the web is far more centralized, and access is increasingly controlled by corporate gatekeepers. For the most part, it’s been a benevolent arrangement wherein you at home pay an internet service provider (ISP) for the ability to get online using a phone line or cable connection.
Everybody’s happy! However, new developments may impede your ability to explore the whole gamut of what the internet has to offer. ISPs are agitating to have more control over that flow of online data, favoring or blocking particular products or websites, and making you pay for the privilege of faster download speeds. This is the issue of net neutrality.
What is net neutrality?
Net neutrality – short for “network” neutrality, not “internet” – is the belief that internet users across the board deserve equal, fair access to the fastest possible broadband connection, regardless of what they’re accessing. Somebody reading Wikipedia shouldn’t be deemed any more or less important than somebody streaming a whole season of Gilmore Girls, and nor should the online encyclopedia be offered a better service than Netflix.
It’s a concept which was enshrined during the utopian early days of the internet, where ISPs provided the infrastructure for accessing the web, but no control over the content customers look at (so long as it’s legal, anyway.) The opposite of net neutrality is a system where ISPs are allowed to give certain users or certain online services preferential treatment.
For example, Comcast or Verizon could demand rival streaming services pay extra to have their video quality be as high as their own, or Time Warner Cable could increase the price of their broadband packages according to what you intended to use the internet for. This is a system that’s fairly standard across many other services – the more you pay, you assume the better the quality of service; it’s why people fly first class or pay more for court-side seats – but the introduction of such a system to the web has been controversial.
The more liberal early adopters of the web believed in an open internet, an ethos which is difficult to reconcile when internet connections are controlled by corporations.
What are the arguments against it?
Some ISPs are against net neutrality and have been looking into introducing tiered systems which would involve both individual users and companies paying more for faster or more stable connections. This side of the argument insists that in a world where internet usage is so widespread and the demand for faster connections is growing – we didn’t have streaming video and social networks when the web was founded, after all! – operating such a system is the only thing that makes sense. In fact, they suggest that strong net neutrality could lead to increased state tax to cover data costs.
Not only that, but skeptics outside the communications industry have warned that any regulations in support of neutrality could essentially strangle the free market when it comes to network services. Without competition or the potential for growth, there isn’t much incentive to invest in ISPs. Which means that ISPs have fewer resources or incentives to innovate! Super-fast fiber optic broadband is currently only available in a few places in the U.S. If it doesn’t prove to be financially advantageous, why would they bother going to the effort of laying so much expensive cabling everywhere?
What is the FCC?
In the U.S., internet connections are regulated by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). As far as recent developments in net neutrality go, it’s the FCC who ultimately have the final word (although that may change, as you’ll see below). Although set up initially to deal with the burgeoning market of telecommunications, in recent years they’ve switched gears to be the regulator for network services in the United States.
A few years ago, the FCC set out their principles for Network Freedom. This is essentially their definition of “net neutrality,” encompassing
In 2015, the FCC set down rules which would see these principles enforced. They did this by making a change which would treat internet connections as a public utility, not unlike they did with phone lines decades before. Republican members of the commission, meanwhile, insisted that softening or even completely dismissing their support for net neutrality would still allow them to regulate the rates charged by ISPs, by allowing for companies and members of the public to petition against instances where they feel they are being unfairly treated.
Immediately, opponents of the ruling began work on legislation to lessen regulation of the industry, and telecom companies banded together to launch a lawsuit arguing that the FCC overstepped their authority. These legal processes are still being dealt with.
What does it mean for companies?
A worry is that, should net neutrality be overturned, ISPs may block or else selectively slow down connection to rival services. ISPs may offer their own streaming services. And when you try to access a different streaming site, they may punish you by slowing down your connection and giving preferential treatment to those who remain “loyal” to their ISP. The FCC have also disputed the “free enterprise” aspect of removing net neutrality, suggesting that having to pay extra could hamper the development of small business and start-ups.
Services like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube only got to where they are today because they weren’t immediately snuffed out by having to pay ISPs to allow them to appear online, and without interminable loading times. There’s the potential that such innovation could be stifled by a tiered system. At the same time, further investment in telecom companies could mean more of that trickles down to the smaller businesses, which would benefit in the long run.
What does it mean for me?
Whether net neutrality gets struck down or not, you could end up shelling out more for your broadband connection. In the event that ISPs get what they want, and what they insist consumers want, you may end up having to pay a premium to get the faster data rates necessary to do everyday internet business like streaming music or video. Or, if neutrality is upheld, the added cost of keeping everyone at the internet speeds necessary for the modern web could be passed onto the consumer.
If you’re somebody who is gorging on data, identified as having a VIDGO or Netflix account, you could be stuck with a higher bill (such streaming services admittedly amount to half of all internet traffic.) Meanwhile, if you’re not prepared to shell out extra or otherwise not allowed into the “fast lane,” you will be stuck with slow internet connections which would effectively throw you back to the dial-up stone age, where your browsing is shoved to the back of the line behind those prepared to pay a few bucks extra.
You can basically forget streaming anything until you pay more, or else stay up to the middle of the night when nobody else wants to binge the latest season of RuPaul’s Drag Race.
How did we get here?
It’s important, to understand the future of net neutrality, to know about its history. The topic of net neutrality has been on the table for as long as private companies have been offering internet access. Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig considers the internet’s undiscriminating passage of data to be one of its core features. It was only in the past few years that net neutrality became such a hot topic, with the Clinton-era FCC’s attempts to foster competition in the burgeoning dial-up market being overruled by a Supreme Court order during the Bush administration.
In 2005 and 2006, companies on either side of the debate began lobbying congress, since back then there were no obvious legal restrictions against controlling data flow of their customers. Between then and 2012, there were numerous attempts to ratify bills which would write net neutrality into law, with congress rejecting them all.
In January of 2014, Verizon challenged these Open Internet rules and subsequently opened a whole can of worms. The court of appeal waved away a couple of the Network Freedom rules, and the FCC subsequently flip-flopped on their previous pro-neutrality ruling in 2014, drafting a new rule of law that would have permitted ISPs to offer content providers a faster track to send content. Later that year, they defined the mooted law more specifically, giving two potential new options.
The first was a creation of “fast lanes” and “slow lanes,” modeled on highway traffic, for broadband connections. Those wanting faster connections would presumably pay more for the privilege, so long as it was “commercially reasonable.” The other was reclassifying broadband as a telecommunication service, which would have essentially drafted net neutrality into law. During that period of legislative limbo, the ISPs pounced. Netflix ended up paying an unspecified sum to Comcast to improve the speed of their streaming service for home users.
The FCC went for net neutrality by reclassifying broadband, a rule which went into effect on June 12, 2015. It was a decision supported by many of the big names in the tech industry whose businesses could have been affected by their customers’ compromised web connections, including Google, Amazon, Twitter, and Facebook. That wasn’t the end of it, however.
What is the future of net neutrality?
FCC chairman Tom Wheeler, who enshrined net neutrality in the current law, resigned at the end of last year. It’s been assumed that the Trump administration’s appointees to the role, Jeffrey Eisenach and Mark Jamison, would be far more conservative. Both have been vocal in their opposition and, given the current government’s commitment to a free market evidenced by its policy decisions and executive orders so far, there’s little to suggest the FCC isn’t about to do a 180.
Eisenach has argued that net neutrality “cannot be justified,” adding that “the potential costs of net neutrality regulation are both sweeping and severe and extend far beyond a simple transfer of wealth from one group to another. Legitimate policy concerns about the potential use of market power to disadvantage rivals or harm consumers can best be addressed through existing antitrust and consumer protection laws and regulations.” Jamison is even more radical, questioning whether the FCC needs to exist at all. We could be on the cusp of a huge change in net neutrality. Stay tuned.