The internet is in its prime. It is a powerful force shaping the modern world. The laws that govern its use in the United States, however, are still in their infancy and in danger of being killed in the cradle.
If you have accessed the internet in the past few weeks, there is a good chance you’ve read about net neutrality. Though the concept seems a bit elaborate, it simply is the idea that everything on the internet should be treated equally or neutrally. On a neutral net, the internet service providers (ISPs), like AT&T/Yahoo!, Comcast and Verizon would be prohibited from charging higher fees to have content delivered to users more quickly in a so-called “fast lane.”
Those campaigning for Net Neutrality are against this “fast lane”, and in favor of the people accessing the internet choosing which sites fail or succeed on a level playing field. Net neutrality has been an important, deeply defining principle on the internet for a long time. It has led to a competitive environment where YouTube was able to supplant Google Video, and Google Maps was able to conquer MapQuest. However, the law adapts to new technology slowly.
The first efforts by the FCC to protect net neutrality did not come until 2005, more than a decade after the establishment of the World Wide Web. The original FCC rules stated that broadband providers could not block legal content, and that consumers were entitled to competition among network, content and service providers. These rules did not establish perfect net neutrality, but they did state the basic rights of Americans concerning accessing the internet.
The FCC attempted to address net neutrality specifically in 2009, but was stopped after losing a court battle to Comcast in April 2010.
With the Open Internet Order of 2010, the FCC sought to reclassify ISPs as common carriers under the Communications Act of 1934. This was meant to give the FCC the authority it needed to regulate the internet. The ISPs fought the new rules in court once again and once again, they won.
In January, a court ruled that ISPs are not common carriers and that the FCC has no authority to enforce net neutrality. Since the beginning of this year, the unwritten founding principle that has made the internet great for so long has been effectively nullified in the United States.
The latest cycle in the downfall of net neutrality began on April 23 when the FCC announced a new set of rules that would specifically allow for the creation of fast lanes.
If these laws are allowed to take effect, the internet will become a very different place. Start-ups that cannot afford to “pay the toll” will find themselves at a very severe disadvantage to their more established competition that can. Think you can do better than Facebook and Twitter or YouTube and Netflix? Too bad! If you can’t pay the fast lane fee that they’re willing to pay, your potentially better service won’t be as fast as theirs and users will be much less likely to switch to it.
Even if you’re not trying to become the next Mark Zuckerberg, this stifling of competition hurts you as a consumer too. When a company’s competition is weakened, it simply doesn’t have to provide as good of a product to stay in business. Even worse, it is free (even encouraged) to charge more for an inferior product. If, for example, Netflix has to pay ISPs to get into their fast lanes, they have less money for new titles and more costs which will be likely passed on to the consumer.
Beyond the fairness and quality of the internet, there is a much more serious issue at stake. Allowing ISPs to favor one content provider over another gives them the power to choose what information we get and what information we don’t. A large number of Americans disapprove of the way the governments of China and other less than democratic countries censor information they do not want their people to access. While these new rules would not allow ISPs to completely block legal content, they would place serious limitations on the ability of less-moneyed voices to be heard.
The only people who benefit from the existence of fast lanes are the ISPs. While an industry in no need of help from anyone would be given a lucrative new source of income and great power over the flow of information in this country, entrepreneurs would face tougher obstacles and consumers would pay more for inferior products. Even established content providers, while getting their services to the consumer faster, would find themselves at the mercy of ISPs. Net neutrality is in more danger than it has ever been. Luckily, though, it is not dead yet. The new FCC rules are not yet official and a public comment period is ongoing.
At Premier VEBA, we believe in a fair and open internet. The internet should be a place conducive to the sharing of ideas, business startups and a free flowing platform of information. If you believe in an internet where consumers continue to hold the power, contact the FCC, your congressional representatives and your senators and tell them you want the internet classified as a common carrier.
This may very well be our last chance to save the internet, and all the rights and privileges of free speech and open commerce that come with it.
Image Source: CFC Oklahoma