Freedom vs. Economics: Understanding Net Neutrality

In 2015, millions of American people fought for and won the rules to maintain and protect the freedom of the internet

In 2015, millions of American people fought for and won the rules to maintain and protect the freedom of the internet. However, on December 14, 2017, the Republican majority of the Federal Communications Commission approved of Chairman Ajit Pai’s plan to roll back net neutrality.

Net neutrality is the principle that Internet service providers must treat all data on the internet the same, and not discriminate or charge differently by user, content, website, platform, application, type of attached equipment, or method of communication. Under this principle, internet service providers are not allowed to deliberately block, slow down, or charge money for specific websites and their content. While Pai argues that this policy is a “massive intrusion in the internet economy,” an overwhelming bipartisan majority argue differently.

Users of mainstream internet have taken to social media to express outrage over the FCC’s decision. They make the claim of the numerous benefits of current net neutrality rules:

  1. Freedom of expression: Websites are able to operate freely as long as they abide by the law. However, Internet Service Providers (ISPs) can now potentially censor content and/or charge fees to access information that they don’t agree with.
  2. Even playing field: Startup companies are able to access the same resources which allow for innovation of products and services. This prevents barriers of entry for newer, smaller businesses, subsequently also reducing the likelihood of a monopoly.
  3. Access to media: Without net neutrality, ISPs are allowed to charge users for access to popular websites like Youtube, Instagram, Netflix, Twitter, and Facebook. Arguably, access to media, social or not, is vital in today’s age. With a repeal, many will be left without connection to friends and family, exposure to global culture, and accurate, unbiased news.
  4. The Common Carrier: Net neutrality stems from the concept of the Common Carrier, whose regulations prohibit the practice of carriers, like trucking companies, from charging users by value of product rather than by weight. Like common carriers, ISPs simply transfer something (in this case, data) from one location to another. As such, the idea that these providers will now be able to access information on user data to charge more for favored services is both unfair and illegal.

However, to say that the enforcement of net neutrality has zero faults would be misguided. As Ajit Pai argues, the internet faces many challenges due to the policy:

  1. No compensation for data usage: Services like video calls and high definition streaming require massive amounts of data that are free on ISP infrastructure, and companies argue that price regulation will compensate for usage. Essentially, service providers are forced to price services with unequal amounts of data usage the same.
  2. Slowed improvement of infrastructure: If net neutrality were repealed, ISPs would be able to charge more for internet services. ISPs could theoretically use the additional income to fund advancements of infrastructure, including better fiber networks.
  3. No Censorship: Dissenters claim that an unregulated internet means that illegal and obscene material can run rampant on the web. However, ISPs already have the ability to filter out illegal material with net neutrality in place.

Millions of citizens have taken up the duty to call their representatives, which has prompted 26 Senators to try to overrule the FCC through the Congressional Review Act. Additionally, the Attorney General of New York City is preparing a lawsuit, investigating the over one million fraudulent public comments submitted to the FCC and the 50,000 citizen complaints that were completely ignored. California State Senator Scott Weiner (D-San Francisco) also pledged that California would “step in and ensure open internet access.” Though the decision to repeal net neutrality made by the FCC on December 14, 2017 was disappointing to millions across the internet, the fight for Net Neutrality is far from over.

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