An Opinion Piece
By Chris Jacobs
It’s a rainy Saturday afternoon and you’ve decided you’re going to binge watch that show all your friends are talking about. So you curl up on the couch, fire up your preferred streaming service (let’s say Netflix here). Everything is going great until you press play, you can barely go 30 seconds without a buffering screen and the picture quality is terrible. You decide to call your Internet Service Provider. You explain the problem to a customer service representative who responds with “Oh I see, it sounds like you’ll need pay for our new Fast Lane package to get better streaming quality.” That doesn’t sound quite right, so you explain that you’re already paying for 25mbps and you subscribe to Netflix. You’re met with the same response and told that it costs the company more to carry your streaming data and therefore you’ll have to pay more to get on the “fast lane.”
While the situation might sound like an exaggeration, it’s just one several major issues that could be presented by a rollback of the FCC’s 2015 ruling on Net Neutrality. Regardless of what services you may pay for, ISP’s will also be able to slow down or even block legal websites and services at their leisure. So what does this all mean? Fast lane? Throttling traffic? Blocking websites? When we say fast lane, it doesn’t actually mean there is a faster connection speed for a particular service, like Netflix. What it means is that the ISP will let you stream that traffic at the full speed you pay for, rather than degrading you connection. This is what throttling is, slowing down your connection to certain sites and services. As far as blocking sites goes, it’s exactly what it sounds like. ISPs once had, and may again, have the power to limit what you are able to see on the Internet.
So let’s say Net Neutrality does get canned. You decided you want to read more about it on Fox News’ website. When you get to their website however, it takes ridiculous amounts of time to load each page. Your ISP in this case might be AT&T, owned by Comcast who also happens to own Fox’s biggest competitor, NBC. So you head over to NBC’s site, which instantly pops up. Some opponents of Net Neutrality, namely Ajit Pai the FCC chairman appointed by President Trump, claim that Net Neutrality is against the First Amendment in that the government would be regulating free speech through Net Neutrality. However, without it ISP’s will be the ones regulating speech and potentially blocking content that doesn’t line up with their views or those of their affiliates.
Chairman Pai’s primary issue with Net Neutrality is that it classifies ISP’s as Title II carriers, which in plain terms classifies the Internet as a utility service, not a luxury. To be fair, Pai and other opponents of Net Neutrality have said they aren’t against the concept of Open Internet, which is that ISP’s must treat all data equally, they’re only opposed to the Title II classification. The issue they take with the Title II classification is that it doesn’t allow ISP’s to offer special benefits to customers or encourage them to invest in the industry, therefore potentially eliminating market competition. Citing previous administrations, specifically the Clinton and Bush administrations, Pai’s new plan takes a “light-touch” approach to Internet regulation. In short, this means removing the Title II classification, but keeping a few loose rules for ISP’s to follow.
It doesn’t take long, however, to realize that this is flawed thinking. The US currently ranks 16th in the world as far as average Internet speed goes for consumers. Yet, we’re easily one of the most developed countries in the world. Classifying ISP’s as Title II carriers didn’t discourage them from investing further in the industry, they weren’t investing to begin with. It’s not as if we, the consumers, are going anywhere and often times the area we live in is only serviced by a single ISP. Telephone services have always been classified as Title II, so what happens when companies switch your phone from older copper wires to voice-over IP (meaning your phone calls will be over the Internet)? AT&T already offers a bundle package that includes telephone, television, and Internet. Will they be able to classify telephone as a private carrier service? Removing the Title II classification from ISP’s will only further allow them to exploit consumers. It doesn’t take much digging into these companies to see that they have never had the interests of consumers in mind, Comcast has actually ranked lower than the IRS on the American Customer Satisfaction Index; putting it in last place out of every rated business in the country.
With regards to Pai’s suggestion that we need to return to the “light-touch” policies of the Clinton and Bush administrations, it’s ridiculous to claim that either administration really had that much influence on how the industry developed. The “light-touch” policy translates more accurately to the “do nothing” policy. The Clinton administration cannot take credit in any way for the Dot Com boom and the Bush administration can’t take credit for the recovery of the industry after the Dot Com bubble collapsed. In fact, it’s not that these administrations had great Internet regulation policies, ISP’s just weren’t noticeably trying to throttle traffic and control competition until the mid-2000’s. Neither of these administrations had to deal with the questions that are being raised now. Chairman Pai claims that concerns of throttling and blocking traffic are just phantom fears made up by a hysterical media. However, it only takes a quick Google search to find that there are numerous court cases and confirmed incidents of ISP’s blocking and throttling traffic. What’s even more concerning is that without Net Neutrality, it wouldn’t take much effort for ISP’s to block websites or content that accuse them of unethical practices.
Net Neutrality doesn’t damage the free market or impede capitalism. Quite the opposite. This policy ensures that all companies who use the Internet are on equal footing. It prevents ISP’s from shaping the market, using a pay-to-play system with start-up Internet companies, and overcharging customers. Removing these regulations won’t encourage ISP’s to lower prices, if anything it will encourage them to increase them. There is no evidence to support that these companies had any intentions of improving infrastructure just for the sake of improved customer experience. There is evidence, however, that shows ISP’s attempting to control markets and extort customers. Net Neutrality isn’t a fight to change the Internet or the way things operate, it’s a fight to keep the Internet the way it’s always been.
If you are interested in supporting Net Neutrality, you can file a comment on the FCC’s website in the listing for Restoring Internet Freedom proposal. You can also help out by supporting the businesses taking part in the July 12th Internet-wide protests including: Amazon, Netflix, Reddit, KickStarter, Twitter, Y Combinator, and GitHub.
UPDATE: While the July 12th protests have long since come and gone, Battle for the Net still has several easy ways for you to support Net Neutrality, including instructions for calling Congress and a list of Congress representatives for each state and where they stand on the issue.