by Heather Tolliver
The Internet has become a fact of life for most Americans. According to the Pew Research Center, more than 87% of adults in the United States use the Internet. Among Internet users, more than 70% believe that it would be hard for them to give up (Fox and Rainie, “Americans’ Views”). With this increasing dependence on the Internet, the issue of fair and reliable access to the Internet has become one of the most important issues in today’s world.
What Is Net Neutrality?
Net neutrality is the principle that Internet service providers (ISPs) should provide consumers with unrestricted access to all legal content and applications on the Internet. It is “not asking for the Internet for free,” nor is it saying that “one shouldn’t pay more money for high quality of service” (Berners-Lee). Net neutrality maintains that ISPs should not favor some sources or deliberately block access to other sources. Net neutrality also prohibits ISPs from charging content providers additional fees for faster delivery of their content or intentionally slowing access for other content providers.
Why Is It Important?
Most Americans receive their high-speed Internet access from only a few telecommunications companies–companies like AT&T, Comcast, Cox, Time Warner, and Verizon. When we use the Internet services of these companies, we expect them to provide the service. We don’t expect them to evaluate our activity on the Internet and then decide whether or not we deserve access to those websites or that information.
And it’s not just a theoretical issue. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, there have already been instances where corporations have restricted access to certain websites or internet applications.
How Has Net Neutrality Been Violated?
- In August 2007, AT&T censored a performance by the rock group Pearl Jam. The ISP turned off the sound on the live feed when Pearl Jam lead singer Eddie Vedder sang lyrics critical of President George Bush. An AT&T spokesperson claimed that the performance was censored due to profanity despite the fact that the censored section contained no profanity.
- In 2007, Comcast throttled data access and sometimes completely blocked all users that participated in peer-to-peer networks like BitTorrent. Comcast claimed it was an effort to end the transfer of pirated content, but they blocked legitimate uses of peer-to-peer networks as well.
- In late 2007, Verizon Wireless blocked access to an application sponsored by the pro-choice advocacy group NARAL. The application allowed messages to be sent between members of the group. Verizon stated that it would not allow any applications “that seek to promote an agenda or distribute content that, in its discretion, may be seen as controversial or unsavory to any users.” Public outrage forced Verizon Wireless to reverse its decision.
Source: American Civil Liberties Union
Sometimes violations of net neutrality are not so obvious and may even be disguised as a gift to the consumer. According to Jeff John Roberts, technology writer at Fortune magazine, T-Mobile recently offered free data for consumers when they stream music on their phones (84). It sounds like a great deal until you realize that T-Mobile is favoring one type of web traffic over another. Now that AT&T and Verizon have purchased video companies, what’s stopping them from promoting some types of video programming over others? It could be the beginning of content discrimination.
Unsurprisingly, not everyone agrees on the subject of net neutrality. Peter Gregory, Research Fellow at the Institute of Public Affairs, a conservative public policy think tank advocating free market policies, calls net neutrality “a grab-bag of cartoonish anti-corporate populism” and argues that the net neutrality rules passed by the Federal Communications Commission are “a threat to the freedom of the internet and its capacity for continued innovation and improvement” (33).
Is Net Neutrality Really Necessary?
- Historically, Internet Service Providers have been allowed to block or speed up access as well as charge content providers for priority services, and they have not done so in large numbers. Instances of censorship have been “incredibly rare” (34).
- If, for some reason, Internet Service Providers began to add these fees as a common practice, consumers would find other ISPs that allowed access to the entire Internet—or at least the parts that the consumer wanted to access. If no telecommunications giant offered access, then new opportunities would open for technology entrepreneurs to fill a market need. In turn, this competition would drive prices down.
- Net neutrality “betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the nexus between innovation and truly free markets” (34). Increased revenues could lead to increases in innovation and technological advances.
Source: Institute of Public Affairs
Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web and director of the World Wide Web Consortium, disagrees with those who argue against the need for net neutrality regulation. He states that while net neutrality has been the unspoken rule of the past, there are new threats—“real explicit threats”—that have been exposed (Berners-Lee). In the United States, these threats include the control of information being held by corporations for commercial reasons.
Berners-Lee admits that the Internet thrives on a lack of regulation but contends that “some basic values have to be preserved” and that “freedom of connection, with any application, to any party, is the fundamental social basis of the Internet and the society based on it.”
What’s the Next Step for Net Neutrality?
Brian Fung, technology reporter for The Washington Post, warns that the battle over net neutrality is far from resolved. He suggests that the next battlefield could be in front of the United States Supreme Court. Some net neutrality opponents are comparing the issue to the Court’s decision on the Citizens United case where it was determined that a corporation is allowed to have the same Constitutional protections as a citizen. They insist that the Federal Communications Commission is violating a corporation’s freedom of speech by “denying broadband providers of their editorial discretion by compelling them to transmit all lawful content, including Nazi hate speech, Islamic State videos, pornography, and political speech with which they disagree” (Fung).
Proponents of net neutrality who defend the Federal Communications Commission decision say that’s the point of net neutrality. They liken broadband service to telecommunications services – they shouldn’t be deciding what’s acceptable and what isn’t; they should only be concerned with transferring information, and doing so without judgement.
The net neutrality argument is far from being finished. As a society and culture so invested in the Internet, we, as Americans, must listen to the arguments and decide how the Internet should be regulated or even if it should be regulated at all. Our decision will determine the future of our online world.
Berners-Lee, Tim. “Net Neutrality: This Is Serious.” Net Neutrality: This Is Serious. 21 June 2006. Web. 17 Oct. 2015. <http://dig.csail.mit.edu/breadcrumbs/node/144>.
Fox, Susannah, and Lee Rainie. “How the Internet Has Woven Itself into American Life.” Pew Research Center. N.p., 27 Feb. 2014. Web. 17 Oct. 2015. <http://www.pewinternet.org/2014/02/27/part-1-how-the-internet-has-woven-itself-into-american-life/>.
Fox, Susannah, and Lee Rainie. “Americans’ Views about the Role of the Internet in Their Lives.” Pew Research Center. N.p., 27 Feb. 2014. Web. 17 Oct. 2015. <http://www.pewinternet.org/2014/02/27/part-2-americans-views-about-the-role-of-the-internet-in-their-lives/>.
Fung, Brian. “Net Neutrality Could Become the Biggest Face-Off on Corporate Speech Since Citizens United.” The Washington Post 28 Sept. 2015. Web. 30 Sept. 2015.
Gregory, Peter. “Net Neutrality is Techno Socialism.” Institute of Public Affairs Review 67.2 (2015): 32-35. Business Source Complete. Web. 17 Sept. 2015.
Roberts, Jeff John. “A New Fight for Net Neutrality.” Fortune 171.8 (2015): 84. Business Source Complete. Web. 17 Sept. 2015.
“What Is Net Neutrality?” American Civil Liberties Union. Web. 26 Sept. 2015.