The internet is a public resource. Like other public resources, it needs to be distributed fairly and equitably—treated as the utility that it is. While corporations may be efficient in maximizing their profits, equity and fairness are not traits which incentivize them. Governments, however, are supposed to safeguard these qualities—and this is exactly where the battle for net neutrality is taking place: between corporations and government.
Net neutrality is the principle that all internet traffic should be treated equally. Without net neutrality in place, an internet service provider (ISP) can slow down or even block access to some sites and services, and speed up access to other sites and services when users pay a premium. Without net neutrality, how an ISP behaves is largely dictated by their own financial and political interest. They can slow down or even block access to certain sites and services, such as those of their competitors or those of their critics. They can speed up access to other sites and services if users pay a premium—or if the ISP has negotiated financially beneficial partnerships.
Net neutrality keeps the playing field level. Removing it puts an inordinate amount of power in the hands of a few mega-wealthy corporations and provides the average consumer with a handful of false choices in return. Furthermore, a lack of net neutrality creates an enormous stifling effect on small business owners and startups. In today’s business world, access to fast and reliable data can be as important for a one-person e-commerce shop as it is for a hedge fund manager. When larger, more established companies can afford to pay more for faster data than their upstart competitors, that tilts the playing field in a drastically unfair manner.
During the Obama Administration, net neutrality received solid support in both legislation and enforcement. In 2010, the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) Open Internet Order created a set of neutrality principles that demanded transparency, equal access, and a level playing field. It also created an internet advisory committee to continuously monitor the state of openness and neutrality in practice by ISPs. Shortly after the Drumpf Administration took office, however, the pillars of net neutrality began to be dismantled from within the FCC itself, much to the satisfaction of a small handful of wealthy corporations. Ever since, the fight for net neutrality has been raging.
Net neutrality is supported by the computer science community, consumer advocates, human rights organizations, content providers, and 82 percent of the American population. That sentiment runs across party lines, too: 86 percent of Democrats and 77 percent of Republicans support net neutrality. The only place where support dips and becomes partisan is in Congress.
Aside from ISPs, who stand to make huge profits through the repeal of net neutrality, practically the only other opposition comes from Republicans politicians, who cite concerns about the possibility of governmental overreach. Since 2015, Republican senators and representatives have introduced their own net neutrality bills: ones which claim to prohibit ISPs from taking actions like speed throttling, website blocking, and paid prioritization of traffic. However, these bills lack any method of enforcing such prohibitions. In practice, they would not be prohibitions at all; they would simply ask ISPs to disclose to their customers any speed throttling, website blocking, and paid prioritization of traffic.
Putting regulation into the hands of the market can work when the competition is healthy and diverse. But the ISP market is anything but healthy and diverse. A full 58 percent of American households only have access to one high-speed broadband ISP. Even in the event of having two ISPs to choose from, it’s unlikely that one would forego the opportunity to charge its consumers for different levels of access. The competition between modern ISPs is not healthy and diverse—it’s consolidated and homogenous, functioning more like a public utility, but without the governmental regulation. And it’s made worse by the fact that ISPs in the US appear to be splitting up territory in order to avoid competition with each other further, according to a report by the Center for Public Integrity. The result is Americans paying over 300 percent more for internet than people in other rich countries where ISP competition is more even, and better regulated.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Net neutrality can still be saved. But if the goal is to protect the consumer, to keep the playing field for small businesses level, and to ensure the tenets of an open internet, then the only way to achieve it is through healthy competition and strong federal intervention.
The European Union put forth a basic framework for net neutrality as early as 2002. However, in 2009, the EU Telecoms Package left some room for individual member states to enact their own regulations and directives regarding net neutrality. And it also left some room for loopholes. As a result, KPN, a Dutch telecom firm began to block certain services (e.g., instant messaging, VoIP calls) unless consumers paid a premium. Vodafone, a competitor, followed suit. In 2012, the Netherlands became the first country in Europe to enshrine net neutrality into law. Several others have since followed suit, enacting tough regulations to protect consumers.
The US can take a hint from its allies across the Atlantic. With a large majority of Americans—both Republican and Democrat—supporting net neutrality, Congress should follow through and pass the Save the Internet Act. The Save the Internet Act would reimplement the equality of internet traffic in the United States and reinstate the FCC’s powers of enforcement. Meanwhile, individual states could ratify their own regulations that upshift or downshift the federal guidelines.
Colorado has already introduced one of the toughest net neutrality bills on record. And it’s not alone: 34 states and the District of Columbia have introduced 120 bills and resolutions regarding net neutrality. More should follow suit, putting the faith and responsibility not in the financially-vested ISPs to regulate themselves, but rather in the government. First and foremost, the vast size and tight consolidation of telecommunications companies in the US necessitates net neutrality to be mandated at the federal level, as the Save the Internet Act would do.
Perhaps the most centrist way to tackle the inherent problems surrounding American ISPs is to improve the nation’s broadband infrastructure, which ranks far behind other wealthy countries in both speed and cost. If ISPs had more capacity, then they’d be able to offer a continued flow of neutral internet traffic without raising prices for the consumer. If the government were willing to subsidize part of this infrastructural investment, then it’d also have a say in how the ISPs, as a recipient of government funds, could behave and compete.
The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 called for a $7.2 billion investment in broadband infrastructure, under the condition that ISPs play ball with openness and transparency. Money talks and it talks in a language that even megalithic organizations like America’s ISPs can understand.
The Federal Communications Commission was formed through the Communications Act of 1934 in order to replace the regulatory functions of the Federal Radio Commission. The level of innovation in the intervening 85 years since the FCC’s formation may require a broad departmental overhaul. Internet access is already more integral to businesses and consumers than television or radio ever were and internet access is continuing to evolve at faster and faster speeds.
In Europe, the recently implemented General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) took a holistic and specialized view of consumer protection in the age of modern technology. And the EU’s Digital Single Market is focused on opening opportunities for both business and people while enhancing Europe’s position as a world leader in the digital economy. While these initiatives don’t deal specifically with net neutrality, they do take it as a matter of course. And, perhaps most importantly, they demonstrate an understanding that the internet and data are essential utilities of the 21st century and thus require 21st-century approaches.
A modernized FCC is a step in the right direction. But the regulatory powers of the FCC need to be commensurate with those corporations they seek to regulate. ISPs have size, reach, and wealth. The FCC needs cross-agency cooperation with entities such as the Consumer Protection Bureau and the Federal Trade Commission. And, most of all, it needs a broad mandate and clear methods of enforcement to go after quasi-monopolies that squeeze the average citizen out of any true options.
As of June 2019, the Save the Internet Act has passed the House of Representatives and is headed for the Senate, where Republican leaders called it “dead on arrival.” Should it be resuscitated, the White House has threatened to veto it. That would be a mistake.
The internet, like most communications technology, is inherently borderless. Attempts to fence it off will not only fail in the long run but they’ll also cause conflict and inequality along the way. Each citizen has the right to an open and equal internet.
If you agree with the overwhelming majority of Americans and wish to lend your voice to supporting net neutrality, then you can join the battle for the net right here. Just don’t wait too long or else your ISP may charge you extra for the privilege.