Net Neutrality: The Ongoing Debate Over the Open Internet

Imagine this: you’ve been working on a paper for a couple hours. You take a quick break to watch some funny YouTube videos. Thanks to net neutrality, YouTube loads at the same speed as any of the articles you’ve been researching, making it extremely convenient to take your break. Now imagine that net neutrality is eliminated. Suddenly, instead of your video, all you find is a page from your internet service provider explaining that you have to pay for access to YouTube. Your only other option is to use their video sharing platform, which doesn’t even have the video you wanted to watch. Before you know it, your break is over, and it’s back to the paper.

While this YouTube example is thankfully not a current reality, phone companies and ISPs do have the capability to block content providers on the basis of competition with their own services. For example, in 2005, a phone company named Madison River blocked Vonage, an internet app that makes phone calls, to protect itself from competition to its services. Following consumer complaints, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) fined Madison River and forced it to stop blocking Vonage.[9] Also in 2005, an ISP called Telus blocked its subscribers from a website run by the union that was on strike against the company.[8] Net neutrality laws adopted in 2015 makes such blocking illegal for any such reason.

Net neutrality rules prohibit “blocking, throttling and paid prioritization” of internet traffic by Internet service providers, or ISPs. This means that an ISP, such as Verizon or Comcast, cannot block content, slow access to content, or change the speed at which content can be accessed based on payment by the user.[7] The amount of data in the content would be the basis of these restrictions. For instance, an email contains a very small amount of data—5 kilobytes. An hour of streaming video could use 5 gigabytes, about a million times as much data as the email.[6] With net neutrality, an ISP must treat both content providers equally. Without it, the ISP can refuse, significantly slow, or require payment for access to the data-consuming video streaming service.

On November 21, 2017, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai announced a proposal to eliminate current net neutrality laws adopted in 2015, which mandate that ISPs must provide access to any legal content without deliberately slowing the speed for some content or requiring payment. The proposal to repeal these net neutrality protections was presented in a December meeting between FCC commissioners, where it passed.[2]

A great deal of power currently rests with a few ISPs and content providers, and they will likely not provide a “vibrant market for fast internet speeds that’s open to everyone” without net neutrality.[4] Under net neutrality regulations, large ISPs are not able to engage in anticompetitive behavior, like establishing monopolies or colluding with competitors to set prices for an entire industry.[3] Eliminating net neutrality could also mean that powerful content providers could gain an advantage, as they would be able to pay fees to have their traffic prioritized over that of startups, small businesses, and nonprofits.[5]

That being said, the recently repealed net neutrality protections were not perfect. For example, existing and legal content delivery networks are used to prioritize the most popular content providers. Within this system, large companies, such as Facebook and Google, have dedicated servers in the ISPs, making their connections faster and giving them a legal advantage. Because of this, net neutrality rules are not the best way to encourage competition.[4]

Arguments for the repeal of net neutrality protections focus on reducing government management to emphasize “private investment and innovation.”[2] Transparency would still be required under the new proposal, so ISPs could not block content without disclosure to customers.[9] Users and content providers could also be charged based on their internet use with the elimination of net neutrality. Users that create more internet traffic would pay a higher price for their increased use, and those who create less would be able to save money. Services like video sharing sites that use much more data than others, like email, would be charged more. In either case, the price of internet use would depend on the quantity of use.

Net neutrality is a major policy issue right now, and it affects the lives of all American internet users. The recent repeal of the 2015 net neutrality laws could stimulate contributions, lower prices for users who consume less data than average, and users would, at least theoretically, be able to choose services that are best for them based on information disclosed by ISPs. However, without these laws, small businesses and nonprofits could be disadvantaged online, ISPs can block any content that does not support their interests, and consumers could be negatively impacted by the decisions of ISPs since most Americans have very few choices in ISPs.[3] While the proposal to repeal net neutrality laws may have passed, there is an ongoing discussion within the FCC on net neutrality, and the best solution to facilitating technological innovation while ensuring fair access to all Internet users.

References:

  1. “Anticompetitive Practices.” Federal Trade Commission: Protecting America’s Consumers, Federal Trade Commission, http://www.ftc.gov/enforcement/anticompetitive-practices.
  2. Kang, Cecilia. “F.C.C. Is Said to Plan Repeal of Net Neutrality Rules.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 21 Nov. 2017, http://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/21/technology/fcc-repeal-net-neutrality.html?module=ArrowsNav&contentCollection=Technology&action=keypress®ion=FixedLeft&pgtype=article.
  3. Lopez, Julia Berry. “Net Neutrality: What Is It and Why Do People Care?” The Knife Media, The Knife, LLC, 22 Nov. 2017, http://www.theknifemedia.com/world-news/net-neutrality-people-care/.
  4. McMillan, Robert. “What Everyone Gets Wrong in the Debate Over Net Neutrality.” Wired, Conde Nast, 23 June 2014, http://www.wired.com/2014/06/net_neutrality_missing/.
  5. “Net Neutrality.” PBS, Public Broadcasting Service, http://www.pbs.org/moyers/moyersonamerica/net/neutrality.html.
  6. Shaw, Dougal. “What Does Net Neutrality Mean?” BBC News, BBC, 19 May 2015, http://www.bbc.com/news/av/business-32592204/what-does-net-neutrality-mean.
  7. Sommer, Jeff. “What Net Neutrality Rules Say.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 12 Mar. 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2015/03/12/technology/net-neutrality-rules-explained.html
  8. “What Is Net Neutrality?” American Civil Liberties Union, American Civil Liberties Union, June 2017, http://www.aclu.org/issues/free-speech/internet-speech/what-net-neutrality.
  9. Wu, Tim. “Tim Wu: Why the Courts Will Have to Save Net Neutrality.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 22 Nov. 2017, http://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/22/opinion/courts-net-neutrality-fcc.html?rref=collection%2Ftimestopic%2FNet%2BNeutrality&action=click&contentCollection=timestopics®ion=stream&module=stream_unit&version=latest&contentPlacement=6&pgtype=collection.
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