What exactly is “net neutrality” anyway?
Net neutrality is the idea that Internet Service Providers (ISP’s) cannot interfere with (prioritize, block, or degrade) content you want to access online. Under net neutrality, network providers are not allowed to charge content providers more to make their data more convenient for users to access, for instance controlling how long their site takes to load. As of now, net neutrality is not legally enforced.
Phone calls are net neutral; you receive calls in the order they are received. If you are on the phone with a friend and your boss calls, your boss cannot pay the phone company to make the call with your friend automatically cut off. Electricity works the same way; all the devices you plug into the wall have access to equal voltage.
Phone calls and electric outlets do not act on financial incentives. They do not charge more for faster service, or block use if they disagree with a user’s intention. The controversy is whether the web should be treated the same way.
Check out this video post on Youtube by http://SavetheInternet.com for a great visual explanation of net neutrality:
What’s the big deal? Should you be concerned?
If you are not a corporate executive at a large ISP, you certainly have cause to worry. AT&T, Verizon, and Comcast would financially benefit from net neutrality not being enforced. These companies effectively hold monopolies over technological infrastructure that costs a lot to build. Most Americans have limited options and cannot switch ISPs if they do not agree with the company’s practices.
So if net neutrality is not legally mandated, the fear is that corporate and other moneyed perspectives on controversial issues will influence what you can access online. Online content or start-ups they perceive as threatening to their corporate interests can be blocked or its quality degraded, or they can increase profits by threatening to do so, and they can create and prioritize their own content. This could limit innovation, free speech, and the democratic dispersal of knowledge.
As SavetheInternet.com’s great video explicitly illustrates with the image of a young African American man creating a 2028 presidential campaign site, a neutral net gives minorities and young people an important tool for engaging in the democratic process, a launching pad for changing the world around them.
Still not concerned? Take a look at the bios and pictures of the executive leadership at AT&T, Verizon, and Comcast:
I hope the point I am intending to make here is clear. The people in command of a non-neutral net may have little incentive to allow space for minority thought online. Without mandated neutrality, there would be nothing preventing them from further marginalizing marginalized thought, from discriminating against racial experience they inherently cannot comprehend. Without net neutrality, nothing prevents them from catering to only the wealthiest customers.
According to the ACLU, what’s at stake here is discrimination that prevents democracy, freedom of speech, and innovation that strives upstream of the status quo.
In Obama’s words, a non-neutral net profoundly impacts “someone who doesn’t have a lot of money but has a good idea”:
But do we have reason to worry that network providers would actually act unethically?
Thanks for the optimism, but examples of telecom giants censoring content unfortunately do exist. In 2007 AT&T silenced several lines that expressed disapproval of George W. Bush during a concert Webcast, and later pleaded this censorship was an innocent mistake. Also in 2007 Verizon blocked text messages from an abortion rights group, claiming a legal right to decide what content to carry or block, and in 2005 a Canadian company, Telus, blocked a union website during a labor dispute within its own company.
Can we all agree?
It is evident that something needs to be done to prevent further abuses of ISP corporate power, but can everyone agree on an appropriate legal solution?
I say: if we want room for minority thought and innovation online, it is essential that the FCC mandate net neutrality. Most people want this anyway even if they don’t have the financial leverage to make their voices heard.
But not everyone agrees. Conservatives equate net neutrality with a government takeover, a regrettable stunting of free commerce. And more than 2.4 million people have signed their petition:
Addressed to the FCC chairman, the petition asserts the anti-regulation sentiments of Wall Street’s private investors, a point of view which decidedly overlooks the interests of diverse minorities.
The Federal Communications Commission issued an “Open Internet Order” in 2010 which the Federal Court struck down in 2014. More specifically, they upheld the Transparency rule (stating that ISPs must disclose network management practices, terms and conditions, so consumers and content providers are informed about their access and the risks of doing business with them), and struck down the no-blocking rule and no-unreasonable-discrimination rule.
In May of this year, the FCC asked for public comments on how best to preserve an open Internet. They received more than 3 million, a record number. It remains to be seen to what extent these comments will be incorporated into their final decision. Most recently they have proposed a rule that might let ISPs charge content companies for priority treatment, resulting in a tiered internet. This “solution” does little to alleviate our worries; ISPs would still be all-powerful gatekeepers, and this set up would cater to wealthier consumers, as content providers would pass along their high-tier costs to users.