Article written by Dylan Thinnes. Cover image from AP Photo/ Martinez Monsivais.
Net neutrality, as Winston Churchill could have put it, is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside of an enigma. It is a multifaceted problem propagated by a wide range of issues, involving such fundamental principles as freedom of speech, market innovation, and government overcontrol. It has the potential to forever change the landscape of the internet that everyone is familiar with today.
To begin with, what is net neutrality? What is this mysterious term that has been fought over for the past few months both online and offline?
Those supporting the principle of “net neutrality” believe that all data transmitted on internet service lines should be treated equally. When I ask for two files from two separate companies, let’s say a local startup website and Google Drive, both files should be delivered at the same rate as fast as my internet connection states it will. Why would we want this? Internet Service Providers, or ISPs for short, maintain and run the networks moving all this data. This means that without the principle of net neutrality, they could control all information sent along their internet lines. They would be the gatekeepers of the internet, able to coerce any website or online business under the threat of cutting off their internet connection. They would have in their hands the means of communication for 78% of developed nations’ people, according to internet usage statistics compiled by the International Telecommunications Union.
The Federal Communications Commision is the U.S government body that is in charge of legislating communications networks and communications companies in the United States. This is understandably an important job, seeing as they set the precedent for many nations around the world. The FCC recently enshrined the principle of net neutrality into law, much to the rejoice of 4 million users who mailed the FCC expressing their want for such legislation. They reclassified Internet Service Providers as common carriers, which means that those ISPs cannot discriminate between customers and packages sent to or from those customers.
There are a series of motivations on both sides of the debate on whether we should keep the principle of net neutrality in law as it is today. Two main concerns are often voiced against this legislation.
First, it is worried that letting the FCC begin to legislate how ISPs do their business would set governments on a slippery slope towards censoring the internet. The gist of this argument is that you’d be taking away the power of ISPs to divert data only to give it to the government. However, this argument doesn’t hold much weight, since common carrier legislation was applied to telephone lines in the golden days of television and the government didn’t turn into Big Brother then. Also, mail and travel companies are often classified as common carriers, and we haven’t seen the United States turn airlines and package delivery into completely federal agencies either.
A second concern often brought up is the bottom line of these ISPs. Many of them state that this move will hurt their profits, thereby stifling innovation and slowing network expansion. There exist two issues with this statement. First of all, innovation is of course wanted in the telecommunications industry, but at what cost? Should citizens and internet users really sacrifice their freedom and give ISPs free reign over the net, helping those ISPs maintain huge profit margins, simply in the hopes that those profit margins will in some way be reinvested into research and development? That is the equivalent of paying someone in the hopes that he will happen do his job rather than threatening to fire him if he does not meet your standards. Secondly, and more importantly, they have not mentioned that every other carrier appears to be getting by just fine despite the ‘burgeoning costs’ of delivering packages on time with no false delays. If airline companies and phone lines could handle the cost, why not hand the same obligations to internet service providers? It seems a bit unfair to all the other common carriers that have to slog their way through the slow lane while ISPs get special treatment.
But the suggestion to redesign and restrict the telecommunications industry as we see fit simply because “Yay! Free the internet!” is not exactly a prudent way to act either, seemingly impulsive and uncompromising with businesses which, in the end, need to be able to conduct their business, not yours. Legislating impulsively and setting unreasonable expectations on businesses based on simply how the people see fit will harm the economy, and letting this pass may lead to a slew of new laws and proposals that would stifle growth in other sectors, too.
And of course, slowing the progress and spread of such a vital utility as the internet puts one at odds with other countries which invest heavily into their networks. With slowed progress in the telecommunications sector, we willingly slow our innovation down, letting other countries take the internet by the reins. Do we want to leave other more data-restrictive nations such as China to make leaps and bounds in their infrastructure and in turn weaken ours? If they gain the upper hand, what might happen to net neutrality? It is indeed ironic that by keeping ourselves safe from the threat of ISPs now, we impair our governments’ abilities to innovate and keep ahead of the pack, undermining the global interconnectivity of the internet system.
And finally, a tiered internet system can be useful, as Angela Merkel mentioned on the 4th of December last year. She argues against the concept of full net neutrality, preferring a in-the-middle approach which would guarantee high speed access for certain service requiring it, such as driverless cars and digital surgeons. Without the ability to create ultra fast lanes, we might stifle innovation in fields that are currently impossible due to restrictive bandwidth speed.
So, what to do? On one hand, ISPs were able to coerce content providers into paying them under the threat that otherwise those content providers would lose their access. This can’t be right, since leaving ISPs with this kind of power would effectively make them the gatekeepers of the Internet, a system which has so far been designed around freedom of information. But on the other hand, we have the worries of stifling market innovation and subsequent global competitiveness. We also have to remember to moderate ourselves and not let the masses become disillusioned into thinking that any decision that defends their view is responsible and economically viable. Maybe this decision defended the rights of internet consumers and was a step towards a more equal future, but we should never be lulled into thinking what majority of people believes is what the minority must live with, especially when the livelihood of an economic sector or the entire nation is at stake.
Was the FCC’s decision in favour of net neutrality right or wrong? That is for you to weigh and decide, just like any issue, but one thing is for sure, that just a few days ago history was made for the net, for the people, and for the future of data transfer.