We Need Net Neutrality

Trump’s F.C.C. could initiate the destruction of the internet as we know it


Ivan Lacroix

Students access the internet during a recent meeting of E-Sports Club. If net neutrality rules were repealed, their ability to do so freely could be threatened.

Google does not exist. Well, it did briefly in 1996, but founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin—two college kids working out of a garage—could not afford the “fast-lane” fines that internet service provider companies such as AOL and Prodigy charged. The best search engine around is Infoseek, the only company wealthy enough to invest in reasonably fast broadband speeds.

But search engine results are rarely valuable; most websites out there are unbearably slow, and information is therefore difficult to retrieve from them. If you want to search for something, you are likely better off using the World Book Encyclopedia online, or just picking up a physical copy of it, since the website is so difficult to use. Large corporations get away with poor web design by paying for the fastest speeds.

Youtube does not exist; the prospect of streaming a video from an independent website is almost laughable. The same goes for music; Spotify does not exist. Jeff Bezos did not dare challenge the existing internet monopolies; he never left his job on Wall Street to found Amazon. Facebook does not exist; AOL Instant Messenger is the only social media it makes sense to use.

Of course, none of that is actually true. Internet service providers in the late ’90s did not charge for “fast-lanes,” and were not even interested in doing so. The point is that if they were to do so today, online innovation could halt, and the websites and internet services of tomorrow might never come to fruition.

“The websites and internet services of tomorrow might never come to fruition.”

Service providers today abide by a set of regulations constituting net neutrality, wherein service providers must treat all content and all networks equally. In practice, this means that both Netflix and the unpopular ‘Youtuber’ that you watch are equally accessible for consumers and internet users; the internet connection to each of these sites is equal in speed and price.

Net neutrality rules are administered by the Federal Communications Commission, or F.C.C., an independent government organization that, according to its official website, “regulates interstate and international communications by radio, television, wire, satellite and cable in all fifty states, the District of Columbia and U.S. territories … the commission is the United States’ primary authority for communications law, regulation and technological innovation.”

In other words: the F.C.C. is the governmental organization that controls your internet access.

In 2015, the F.C.C. under chairman Tom Wheeler ruled in favor of current net neutrality rules—which treat the internet as a public utility like telephone networks—after millions of people sent messages and left comments on the F.C.C. website in favor of protecting internet access equality. Now, Ajit Pai, Trump’s appointee for F.C.C. chair, is threatening to repeal those rules pending a vote scheduled for December 14, 2017.

If net neutrality rules were repealed, access to the internet could change significantly. Internet service providers, or ISPs, like Verizon, AT&T, Comcast, and Spectrum (formerly Time Warner) could potentially limit internet access to certain websites and give other websites more broadband to make use of.

A number of catastrophic scenarios could result from this: ISPs could charge individually for access to some websites, similarly to the ways in which cable television currently works. You could pay for an internet plan which allows you access to only twenty basic websites—such as Wikipedia, Facebook, Youtube, or other Google services. This would limit the individual’s freedom to access more of the internet, and prevent startups or smaller websites from being competitive at all, as people would not want to pay for websites that they might not foresee needing to access.

“This would limit the individual’s freedom to access more of the internet.”

Other models—like the one dramatized above—would create internet “fast lanes,” in which certain businesses would pay ISPs to make their websites faster. The cost could also be carried over to consumers, who could pay for which websites they would like to speed up. This scenario as well prevents smaller websites from being accessible and stifles innovation. Startups or smaller companies do not have the publicity or the capital to be able to ride on such fast lanes.

Altogether, removing these regulations would be crippling for any company which is not an ISP or an already established internet giant. Regardless of how you spin it, it is clear that net neutrality would make it harder for small businesses to compete. A small, online clothing company would be powerless unless it could sell its goods on Amazon; independent musicians would not be able to sell music except via iTunes or Spotify. Net neutrality is the backbone of the free market as it pertains to the internet.

Opponents of net neutrality might argue that it stifles innovation, that all deregulation is good deregulation, and that this will naturally lead to prosperity in the marketplace. These arguments fail to account for the power structure of the internet. When it comes to the internet, ISPs are essentially the government, the internet itself is the market, and websites are businesses. Without net neutrality, ISPs would gain the power to unfairly regulate websites, similarly to how a government could unfairly regulate businesses. In this sense, net neutrality is the anti-regulation, the regulation which guarantees a permanent state of deregulation.

If you are concerned about saving net neutrality, call your representatives in Congress and voice your opinion, or use Resistbot (https://resist.bot/) to send a message to them. If you have friends or family who live in conservative areas, it is especially important to ask them to call their representatives as well. The only way that we can stop the net neutrality repeal is by putting public pressure on Ajit Pai and other members of the F.C.C. to vote against it.