The United States Without Net Neutrality

Net neutrality is one of the issues the Internet faces today. Source: The OECD

A war is being waged for the Internet, and governments, activists, and everyday people are trying to gain as much control as they can. Democratic governments and authoritarian governments are in ideological conflict over whether the Internet should be free or restricted, anarchists are hacking into government websites and trying to evade law enforcement, and Internet pirates who illegally share movies and music are being targeted by corporate lawsuits. In the warzone also exists the fight over net neutrality, the principle that everyone should have access to the Internet. Net neutrality includes restrictions on corporate control of the Internet, such as preventing Internet providers from charging content providers more for premium Internet service. For example, net neutrality prevents actions like when Comcast made Netflix pay more for premium Internet service to stream its videos.

The need for net neutrality developed in 2008 when the Internet providers Comcast and Cox Communications slowed the Internet speed of BitTorrent, a program that shares content between Internet users. Months later, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) ordered the Internet providers to cease the behavior, and this was the first sign of government enforcement of net neutrality. The Internet providers refused and the D.C. Circuit Court ruled that the FCC could not prevent the Internet providers from slowing BitTorrent’s Internet speed. The commission still implemented its first net neutrality rules in 2010. These were again challenged by Internet providers, and the D.C. Circuit Court voided these rules because the FCC classified the Internet providers as information services. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 did not give the authority for the FCC to regulate that category and so the court ruled the FCC overstepped its bounds. However, the court believed the FCC had the authority to regulate net neutrality, and to do so the FCC must classify Internet providers as telecommunications services. In the meantime, no net neutrality rules in the U.S. currently exist.

The lack of net neutrality rules means that small businesses will have a hard time surviving when Internet providers chose to charge them more for Internet service. Without net neutrality, indie filmmakers would have a hard time distributing their product through the Internet because of increased costs of Internet service. When the Internet becomes less accessible to businesses, companies like Google and Facebook, who were once start-ups with few resources, are less likely to succeed, as well as their innovative ideas. Innovation relies on new ideas, and these ideas are created when new businesses are encouraged to participate.

Internet service in the U.S. is in terrible shape, and the lack of net neutrality will worsen its condition. The U.S. ranks 31st in the world in download speed with less developed countries such as Estonia, Slovakia, and Uruguay surpassing it. Countries with elite service like Japan have over 100 megabytes per second Internet speeds compared to the U.S.’s 20.77 megabits per second. The lack of competition is causing low internet speeds in the US. Internet providers have divided the market and maintained monopolies in their respective areas, so customers in one city could only receive Comcast Internet, while customers in another city could only receive Verizon Internet. Additionally, new businesses have trouble entering the Internet service business because start-ups face the dilemma of needing to pay for more Internet bandwidth, the space to transmit data, but they cannot make enough money to do so. Google Fiber has successfully become an Internet provider, but it is only available in few places, and the overall lack of competition in the U.S. Internet service industry is increasing prices to customers while maintaining an outdated Internet infrastructure. There is no incentive for Internet providers to invest in infrastructure such as faster fiber optics when there is no competition.

Corporations sometimes make decisions that detract from societal wellbeing, and without net neutrality they could abuse their control over the Internet. AT&T has manipulated data transmitted through its network with political intentions during its broadcast of a Pearl Jam performance by censoring the band’s political lyrics. Verizon has also abused its power by denying the text-messaging of a pro-abortion rights for political reasons. The ability of corporations to influence the Internet is problematic for freedom of expression, and as the Internet becomes an important method to reach people, the ability for both sides, liberal and conservative, to voice their opinions on the Internet must be protected.

As Internet in the U.S. deteriorates, the FCC is attempting to fix the situation with a new set of net neutrality rules. In its first set of rules, the FCC implemented three tenets of net neutrality: Internet providers must not block legal content, must not unreasonably discriminate against data, and must disclose their practices. The FCC is including these in its new rules, which will address the problems predicted following the courts’ ruling. Small Internet businesses will be protected because net neutrality restricts the ability of Internet providers to charge high prices, thus restricting the economic power of large Internet corporations that can afford premium Internet service. The ability to afford Internet service will not determine the success of Internet businesses, and this will encourage the next generation of innovation. Net neutrality will revitalize Internet speed in a stagnating U.S. market, and perhaps most importantly, is a step toward protecting free speech and expression in the digital age.