Net neutrality has reentered the national discussion. President Obama released a statement in support of net neutrality, urging the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to reclassify the Internet as a public utility.
Public support is growing and while there is some room for optimism for net neutrality an “open Internet” is not guaranteed. The FCC still needs to take action and must resist pressure from the right to let the Internet continue to go unregulated.
Net neutrality, or network neutrality, is the idea that the companies who build, maintain, and control the infrastructure of the Internet should treat the data coming from the computers of those who provide the content of the Internet equally.
Net neutrality is also called the “open Internet” because all data flows equally. Internet Service Providers (ISPs) like Comcast, Time Warner, and Verizon are the types of companies who own the infrastructure of the Internet and they want a “closed Internet” or the ability to control the flow of data, creating a “fast lane” for those who can afford to pay. The fear is that this will result in fewer choices for consumers and less competition, as content providers like Netflix will be able to afford the fast lane, while newcomers, without large amounts of capital, will not be able to compete.
An open Internet is in the short term interests of the working class, but, ultimately, net neutrality is a fight between two styles of capitalism. If net neutrality prevails, certain business have a more “fair” chance to make money. If net neutrality fails, larger companies can make even more money. The “free and open Internet” that Obama has campaigned on is far from the idea of a free Internet owned by the commons and operated for the public good.
Many organizations on both sides of the aisle are in support of net neutrality. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) says “The White House Gets It Right On Net Neutrality.” But in the same title asks the crucial question, “Will the FCC?” EFF explains that Obama is asking the FCC to “reverse its 2002 decision to treat broadband as an ‘information service’ rather than a ‘telecommunications service.'”
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) sees net neutrality as an issue of free speech and urges the public to let the FCC know their feelings on the matter. The ACLU takes issue with the concept of companies sifting through consumers data and providing different levels of service.
The Internet Association, of which Amazon, Netflix, Google, Ebay, Paypal and many others are a part, issued a statement in support of President Obama’s plan. The association president and CEO, Michael Beckerman issued a statement, “We welcome the President’s leadership, and encourage the FCC to stand with the Internet’s vast community of users and move quickly to adopt strong net neutrality protections that ensure a free and open Internet.”
Farhad Manjoo of the New York Times, is skeptical of the largest Internet businesses’ supposed support for net neutrality. Manjoo claims they have not entered in to the national discussion as forcefully as they can because they have little incentive. He points out that net neutrality primarily impacts small Internet businesses and startups.
The ISPs and big money investors do not want an open Internet, which they see as government regulation and interference with a perfectly functioning open market. Larry Downes, via the Harvard Business Review, argues that the FCC should do nothing and should let the Internet continue to go unregulated. Downes, and those who adhere to an Ayn Rand style of free market capitalism, believe that the Internet has thrived precisely because of a lack of regulation. In the view of this small economic minority, the Internet has the ability to self-correct.
In January of 2014, a federal district court ruled against net neutrality in Verizon v FCC, and many organizations and consumer groups spoke out against the ruling. In June 2014, comedian John Oliver, on his HBO show Last Week Tonight, delivered a passionate and insightful segment calling on his viewers to advocate for net neutrality by submitting a statement to the FCC via the FCC’s website. This led to some 4 million comments and the FCC website crashing from the amount of traffic. President Obama, in his statement on Monday, referenced those 4 million comments when asking the FCC to protect net neutrality. Net neutrality has, at least the appearance of, mainstream public support.
The fight for net neutrality is not over, as the FCC still needs to create a path toward regulation or create new rules allowing ISPs to charge different rates for faster or slower service. Tom Wheeler, the FCC chairperson, finds himself between a rock and a hard place as he tries to appease the president who appointed him and the cable industry, for which he has so strongly lobbied.
Photo: Dominic Lipinski/AP & PA Wire