Since its inception, the internet has been an open forum on which to exchange information. The internet’s uniqueness comes not only from its revolutionizing nature and globalizing effects but also its democratic essence that gives every user the same access. In a 2003 paper, Columbia law professor Tim Wu coined the term “net neutrality” and defined the principle as “a maximally useful public information network aspires to treat all content, sites, and platforms equally. This allows the network to carry every form of information and support every kind of application.” Originally articulated as a technological concept, net neutrality has become a hotly political debate that has pinned supporters of the status quo against the companies that seek to upend it. President Obama defined the topic very simply when giving his take on it: “No service should be stuck in a ‘slow lane’ because it does not pay a fee.” Internet service providers, like AT&T and Verizon, have long advocated for net neutrality’s end, but its demise would represent a significant step towards virtual authoritarianism.
Under net neutrality regulations, internet service providers (ISPs) have to treat all of the content hosted on the internet as the same. In other words, a small business’ website uses the internet and pays the same dues as does a media conglomerate like Netflix or Facebook. Ending net neutrality would, however, give ISPs the power to “throttle certain content, slowing down the delivery of that content—or even blocking it—so that it would not cause congestion and hinder other kinds of service.” Throttling would essentially turn the internet into an auction house with content providers offering money in exchange for preferential treatment. Large internet-based companies would obviously be keen to pay the connectivity fees that provide the fast service speeds. A 2014 deal between Netflix and Comcast demonstrates the real-world implications of this pay-for-play scheme. According to a New York Times article, Netflix agreed to pay for a fast lane on Comcast’s broadband network after it experienced continuously slow speeds. Many experts characterized this exchange as a violation of net neutrality because it countered the principle that all content should be treated equally.
The financial implications of net neutrality’s demise affect more than just web-based companies—ordinary internet users would suffer as well. The connectivity fees that websites would have to pay ISPs would almost certainly be dispersed among the websites’ consumer base. Though diffusing the costs across many consumers would lessen the financial burden to individuals, they would see increased costs under this scheme. Many other countries with easily manipulated net neutrality rules show the onerous costs of unregulated systems. An LA Times article points out that the Portuguese service provider MEO offers several different internet packages each with a different cost. The ISP charges a flat fee for a basic internet package and provides a series of additions for more money. These upgrades include access to social media, video streaming, messaging, music, and so on. The strength of the United States’ net neutrality laws have protected Americans from paying extra for basic services that would otherwise be included in their flat fee.
Net neutrality’s weakening or disappearance would not only impose heavy financial burdens on ordinary content consumers but also incur significant social costs. The current internet permits the free exchange of ideas and content with minimal barriers to entry. The Internet’s openness has provided minorities with an alternative to the traditional media and political organizations that have misrepresented and ignored them. In her article on minorities’ stake in net neutrality, Sara Kamal writes that many minorities “have turned to the open Internet as a soundboard for their underrepresented voices.” Increased barriers to entry would rob minorities of this valuable asset. Kamal goes on to argue that “companies that have to pay more for faster speeds will pass on the costs to consumers, many of who can hardly afford the Internet as is.” These financial burdens would effectively silence minorities as it would arguably take away their most important communication and organizing system. If ISPs were to take their unregulated power to the extreme, they may even restrict certain types of political speech on the Internet. This Orwellian world may seem unrealistic, but a permanent end of net neutrality could bring about unknown and dangerous consequences.
While net neutrality protects minorities’ interests, it also helps upcoming small businesses gain recognition. Because the open Internet treats all content the same, the speeds of sites for big and small companies are the same. Furthermore, their equal treatment means that they both get exposure, though bigger companies tend to be nearer to the top of search engine results. Throttling and discrimination would give more exposure to the big businesses that can afford to pay for faster speeds. As a U.S. News article puts it: “These increased costs for content providers may also make it harder for startup media companies, which can’t afford to pay for priority speeds, to become competitors.” Smaller businesses would be relegated to the corners of the Internet where they would not receive the sunlight needed to grow. In turn, competition would be decreased, which could increase prices of the products and services provided by big businesses.
To understand the current state of net neutrality, it is important to trace the history of it: here is a timeline. In 1996, Congress passed the Telecommunications act of 1996, which classified the internet as a telecommunication service. This law gave the Federal Communications Committee (FCC) the power to regulate the Internet. In a pivotal 2005 case, the Supreme Court undermined the 1996 law by defining the internet as an information service, removing it from the FCC’s jurisdiction. After the ruling, several internet service providers, notably Comcast and Verizon, began throttling and discriminating internet access. The FCC responded to this development in 2010 with the passage of the Open Internet Order, which required internet providers to treat all traffic equally and be more forthcoming about their practices. Not surprisingly, Verizon sued the FCC because it claimed the Committee did not have the right to regulate internet providers because of the 2005 case. Between 2005 and 2015, the strength of net neutrality fluctuated, and internet service providers experimented with throttling and In 2015, Chairman Tom Wheeler reasserted the FCC’s ability to legally regulate ISPs by reclassifying them as “common carriers.” Wheeler used his newfound regulatory power to impose strict net neutrality rules.
Much has changed since 2015, and net neutrality is now facing the biggest recent threat to its existence. Previously, the threat came from angry internet service providers that fought an intense legal battle against the U.S. government. Now, it is the FCC itself that is endangering net neutrality. The commissioners and chairman of the FCC are nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate. This process results in the body generally supporting the policies and viewpoint that the president’s party promotes. At the start of his term, President Trump appointed Ajit Pai, a former Verizon lawyer, to be the Commissioner of the FCC. Pai has sided with the broadband internet companies in the net neutrality debate, and he is strongly considering declassifying them as “common carriers.” This move would, in turn, relinquish the FCC’s power over the internet providers and end net neutrality.
At the core of the net neutrality debate are the questions of who controls the internet and what rights does the owner(s) have. The internet service providers claim that they are entitled to regulate the internet as they so please because they are the ones who built it. Without them, they argue, there would be no internet, so they should have control over it. AT&T’s Ed Whitacre phrased it candidly: “The internet can’t be free in that sense, because we and the cable companies have made an investment and for a Google or Yahoo or Vonage or anybody to expect to use these pipes free is nuts.” He is essentially arguing that internet-based companies should have to pay additional fees because they are generating income from a platform that they did not help create. In a recent interview, Chairman Pai argued that “by imposing those heavy-handed economic regulations on Internet service providers big and small, we could end up disincentivizing companies from wanting to build out Internet access to a lot of parts of the country.” His argument is essentially that ISPs have little motivation to expand Internet access under the current rules because they are not making enough money off of it. Underpinning this position is the assertion that repealing net neutrality would bring in more money for ISPs. This money would almost certainly come from throttling and discrimination.
On the flip side, content suppliers argue that the construction of the Internet has little to do with their right to use it fairly. After all, nobody is asking Internet service providers to give them access for free—they are simply asking that every site and every user be treated equally. Net neutrality has maintained the Internet’s status as an open and fair domain that can raise the voices of the marginalized and grow new businesses. The future for this democratic system is under siege by the very people tasked with defending it, and the consequences will be grave. Throttling, discrimination, and censorship will replace equity, fairness, and freedom. For these reasons, net neutrality must be upheld and attacks on it must be thwarted. Internet service providers make too much money already to strip the American people of one of the last remaining bastions of free speech and fairness.