The advent of the internet fundamentally changed human life, for better or worse. The internet gave people access to resources and communication networks that far surpassed any previous technology, and it gave rise to a whole new crop of companies and services. The early years of the internet were marked by rapid expansion, but this growing cyber Wild West soon showed its need to be regulated, which has been a complicated legal battle for over 15 years. The articles “The Internet Doesn’t Have to Be Free” and “Technology Historian Crushes Internet Myths” detail how net neutrality has dominated the debate about the internet’s rulebook and future.
Net neutrality is a term coined by a Columbia law professor that refers to keeping the internet a free and equal playing field for all users, both on the consumption and production sides. This battle has pitted fans of free speech against broadband internet companies as the latter has selectively slowed down the download speeds of certain content. Some providers, for example, imposed artificial delays on loading the very popular streaming service Netflix, which inconvenienced Netflix users ability to consume entertainment on the site. The providers essentially held Netflix hostage and demanded a ransom to restore normal download speeds. This is a quintessential example of the consequences of limited net neutrality: providers can discriminate against certain internet users in exchange for financial gain. The discriminating companies argue that they have contributed to building the internet, so it is only fair for them to extract payment from companies that would otherwise free-ride off of their hard work. On the other side of the debate, those “free-riding” companies and ordinary internet users often argue that the internet should be an open forum for all legal content, and restricting this freedom is restricting freedom of speech at large.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has waffled on the issue of net neutrality since the rise of the internet, but its stance has always had little impact on the reality of the situation. In 2002, FCC Chairman Michael Powell declared that the internet is not within the FCC’s jurisdiction, so the body has no power to regulate it. Despite this decree, the FCC, under other leadership, has tried to institute regulations that maintain net neutrality, but they have been ignored, challenged, or defeated in court. Powell’s statement delegitimized any FCC-imposed regulation or suggestion regarding broadband Internet service, so all subsequent actions taken by the FCC have been ineffective or null.
Without the FCC able to effectively regulate, the fate of the internet seems to be in the hands of Congress and internet consumers. Congress has the ability to pass enforceable laws that could help maintain net neutrality, but Andrew Russell points out that members of Congress likely do not have the necessary appetite or knowledge to craft smart, effective legislation to deal with this issue. Therefore, the last hope for net neutrality lies in the hands of individual broadband internet consumers, who can exercise their power to demand a free, fair, open internet.