The Necessity of Net Neutrality

Image credit: Public Domain Pictures

Net neutrality is an essential idea for the continued growth of the Internet. It is about economics, governance, and competition. It guides how the Federal Communications Commission must handle ISPs, Internet Service Providers, as ISPs sell their service to consumers. “The net neutrality debate is a response to political, economic, and social changes that are transforming the Internet and its historical governance arrangements.” There are three driving forces behind the net neutrality debate: technical developments in being able to identify and discriminate data, the diversification and expansion of users and data, and the governance of the Internet with regards to free speech. A true debate on net neutrality requires a proper understanding of these driving forces.

Image credit: FCC

Net neutrality, with regards to the FCC, began with the Open Internet Order. The FCC issued these rules for neutrality in late 2010. It stated how “Fixed and mobile broadband providers must disclose the network management practices, performance characteristics, and terms and conditions of their broadband services; fixed broadband providers may not block lawful content, applications, services, or non-harmful devices; mobile broadband providers may not block lawful websites, or block applications that compete with their voice or video telephony services; and fixed broadband providers may not unreasonably discriminate in transmitting lawful network traffic.” These rules were made as a response to a series of deregulation and ISP discrimination with Internet handling. The FCC fined the ISP Madison River Communications in March 2005 for blocking a VoIP, Voice over Internet Protocol, service that competed with Madison River Communications. In September 2005, the FCC deregulated DSL, digital subscriber line, by “reclassifying it as an ‘information service’ instead of a ‘telecommunication service’ thus freeing phone companies of regulations that require them to share their infrastructure with Internet service providers.”

In September 2007, Comcast began blocking Bittorrent, a torrent service, and denied doing so. Comcast then admitted to delaying the traffic on its network. After an assessment of the situation, the FCC ordered Comcast to stop discriminating against Bittorrent traffic on their network. Immediately after, Comcast attempted to appeal the order to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals which ultimately ruled in favor of Comcast. The court did not think that the FCC had the power to order Comcast to stop discriminating traffic on its network.

After the FCC published the Open Internet Order in the Federal Register, Verizon appealed to the D.C. Circuit Court to challenge the FCC’s authority to enforce the order. The court then overturned the order saying that the Internet’s classification as an information service prevents it from being treated as a telecommunication service. In February 2015, the FCC voted on the reclassification of internet connections in favor of reclassifying them as a telecommunications service. This reclassification gave wired and wireless internet connections Title II protections granted in the Communications Act of 1934. With the power to regulate the Internet, the FCC issued a new Open Internet Order focusing on bans on paid prioritization, blocking, and throttling. “’Fast lanes’ will not divide the Internet into ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots;’ Consumers must get what they pay for — unfettered access to any lawful content on the Internet; and Degrading access to legal content and services can have the same effect as blocking and will not be permitted.” To the surprise of no one, ISPs once again attempted to appeal to the D.C. Circuit Court to overturn this order, but this time the court affirmed the FCC’s order protecting the Internet.

The idea of net neutrality is one that has developed as the Internet itself developed. As far as the governance of the Internet regarding net neutrality, the debate goes into whether the industry can be self-regulated. The Internet cannot be self-regulated when entities such as Comcast, a single ISP, owns 56.8% of all broadband customers and most of the US population is under local monopolies of ISPs, giving consumers little to no choice in service and Verizon has stated that the only thing preventing them from charging its users additionally for connecting to websites is the Open Internet Order. There are also many facets of net neutrality.

· Data must be treated equally. They cannot be discriminated by their origin, destination, or content.

· ISPs cannot block the dissemination, access, and use of data.

· ISPs cannot charge content providers a fee for terminating traffic to users.

With these ideas in mind, ISPs have attempted to skirt these rules before. They have attempted to implement zero-rating to specific services for consumers that use their service. A zero-rating would allow use of a website or service without counting against a user’s data cap, a limit to the amount of data a customer may use within an allotted time. Since the zero-rating would be up to the discretion of the ISP, the ISP essentially would have the ability to extort certain sites into paying a premium to have the zero-rating. Additionally, the costs of these premiums would be passed onto the consumers, either by the sites themselves or by the ISPs.

Another issue within the net neutrality debate involves the use of the Internet within the United States. The Internet serves as a platform for speech. “Freedom of speech online requires the ability for users to access the Internet and to communicate their thoughts and viewpoints online.” Bauer and Obar go on to describe how “access to means of communication” needs to be available to the “weakest members of society.” Access to other technologies such as television and radio were regulated due to the limits of the electromagnetic spectrum, but the Internet is unlike previous technologies. The Internet is not physically limited as television and radio are.

Net neutrality, both in theory and in practice, is about competition. Competition is necessary for any service to properly function for the consumer, and the FCC, under Chairman Ajit Pai, “has thus far not consistently applied any particular definition of competition.” The whole analysis explains that without Net Neutrality, ISPs, Internet Service Providers, would have a monetary incentive to discriminate the data they handle and that the FCC shows “apparent disinterest in considering the economic logic for and against the net neutrality rules or in acknowledging the possibility of unintended consequences.” The issue is still hotly debated and that the situation around it is still changing. While the effects of Net Neutrality appear to be economically neutral, the article points out that a situation with its absence can be abused.

The FCC had opened itself to the public for comments for its rulemaking as it is part of the FCC’s process. The second to last time the FCC did, they received 3.7 million comments. This was a new record for the number of comments received. The FCC opened themselves again for comments in August 2017. The previous record was broken with a total of 22 million replies. All these comments were in response to the FCC’s plan to repeal Net Neutrality.

During the commenting period, media outlets raised awareness to the public of the FCC’s plans for Net Neutrality and the FCC’s comment period. This awareness possibly led to the site being temporarily down due to stress from so many people attempting to comment. This is a possibility as the public is not aware of the actual details of the downtime as the FCC declined to explain what happened nor release any documentation of the event. While a large majority of the comments were in favor of keeping Net Neutrality and explaining the FCC’s need to have the authority to enforce rules on ISPs, there were a number of comments in favor of repealing Net Neutrality. However, tens of thousands of these comments in favor of repealing were fake comments that had used the names and addresses of real people without their consent or had been attached to disposable email addresses (which can only imply illegitimacy). Although in a telecom funded study of the comments, 60% of the comments were still in favor of keeping Net Neutrality. The study still showed that a clear majority of the comments were in favor of Net Neutrality. Unfortunately, the FCC will possibly still choose to repeal the rules, acting against the interest of the public. As Pai has stated, it is the quality of the comments, not the quantity, of comments that make a difference. While this may sound like a reasonable statement, it also can apply to a decision that goes against the public’s interests as the FCC would be the ones to determine what is quality.

Net neutrality is an ideal that should be the goal regarding regulation of the internet. It protects consumers and businesses that both use and rely on the internet. Without net neutrality, ISPs have shown that they will abuse the situation for their own profit. The FCC must have the ability to enforce their rules and act in the interest of the public. Unfortunately, most people have little to no idea that the internet, the infrastructure of nearly everything that they use, is under attack. There are a couple of ways to combat this dilemma. Contacting the people that represent you in Congress and spreading awareness on social media are the tools available to us. Below are a few links to resources that you can use to help in the fight for net neutrality.

Save the Internet

Battle for the Net

Keep Our Net Free subreddit

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