The Case for Net Neutrality

Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

In a landmark 3-2 decision on February 26, 2015, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) decided to treat the Internet as a public good, along the lines of its treatment of the telephone and television broadcast systems in the 20th century. While the practical ramifications of this ruling may take years or even decades to be truly felt, the bottom line appears clear: much like the National Football League (NFL), the “American” internet will have a set of rules and a referee, i.e. the FCC, to enforce them in the name of net neutrality:

"The internet must remain open. We will protect the values of an open internet, both in the last mile as well as at the point of interconnection." - FCC chairman Tom Wheeler

The Concept of Net Neutrality

According to Wikipedia, internet or “net” neutrality should operate on the principle that “Internet service providers (ISPs) and governments should treat all data on the Internet equally, not discriminating or charging differentially by user, content, site, platform, application, type of attached equipment, or mode of communication.”

The idea of net neutrality was first popularized by Columbia law professor Tim Wu in his 2003 paper, Network Neutrality, Broadband Discrimination. In it, Wu discusses all aspects of neutrality, i.e. between applications (“apps”), between data and quality of service (QoS)-sensitive traffic, and the dangers of two-tiered Internet access.

Canada (who recently enacted new anti-spam laws), the European Union (EU) and other jurisdictions have also been grappling with net neutrality issues in recent years, and for the most part have policies in line with the latest FCC ruling.

In 2009, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) adopted strong net neutrality rules aimed at preventing bandwidth throttling (deliberate slowing of services by ISPs), the establishment of fast and slow lanes, as well as website blocking.

Leveling the Playing Field With Net Neutrality

From an e-commerce perspective, proponents of net neutrality claim that it will give small entrepreneurs a better chance to breathe online, let alone succeed, when facing large conglomerates and their well-heeled lawyers and lobbyists.

Small and medium-sized businesses are the backbone of America's digital economy, so it makes no sense to devote massive resources (bandwidth, hardware infrastructure, etc.) on a so-called “fast lane” internet that only the rich can access on a regular basis. It will harm technological and marketing innovation, and leave too much power and influence in the hands of a select few. Nobody or almost nobody wants a return to the robber baron era of exploitative and oligopolistic capitalism:

"The internet is the most powerful and pervasive platform on the planet. It's simply too important to be left without rules and without a referee on the field." - FCC chairman Tom Wheeler

Voices in Favor of Net Neutrality

The Obama administration and numerous grassroots organizations spearheaded the drive for net neutrality and classification of the Internet as a public utility. Upwards of four million Americans filed official grievances at the FCC to oppose efforts by large cable providers like Verizon and Comcast aimed at approving preferential or “fast lane” Internet access.

Prominent voices for net neutrality include:

  • Vinton Cerf, co-inventor of the Internet Protocol (IP).
  • Tim Berners-Lee, creator of the World Wide Web (WWW).
  • 'Last Week Tonight' host John Oliver.
  • American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
  • The Electronic Frontier Foundation.
  • Greenpeace.
  • Kickstarter.
  • Vimeo.
  • Mozilla Foundation.
  • Senator Bernie Sanders (I - Vermont).
  • The Internet Association (an alliance of 39 global internet companies including Amazon, Facebook, and Google.)

New Threats to Net Neutrality

Americans in favor of net neutrality who thought that the issue had been settled are potentially in for a rude awakening.

Although the landmark Federal Communications Commission (FCC) decision on February 26, 2015 presumably secured the Internet's treatment as a public good (Title II Order), recent developments risk altering, if not outright reversing, both the letter and spirit of current net neutrality rules that have been in place for barely two (2) years. Two of the biggest threats to net neutrality include:

1. The 2016 Election of Donald J. Trump as President of the United States.

President Trump's unprecedented path to the Oval Office was driven by a bewildering mix of economic populism, rabid nativism (bordering on racism and bigotry, according to some), and a palpable dislike for America's political, media and entertainment establishment.

That being said, Trump's personal views on net neutrality are difficult to decipher, since he is on record as criticizing Big Cable's (e.g. Verizon, Comcast, AT&T) monopolistic practices. However, he is likely to fall back on free enterprise and deregulation rhetoric, and defer to prominent voices who have opposed net neutrality for years. Voices that includes Peter Thiel, arguably President Trump's most prominent high-tech backer during the presidential campaign.

More importantly, the Trump victory ensures a Republican, anti-net neutrality majority on the FCC Board of Directors, headed by newly appointed FCC chairman (and rabid net neutrality critic) Ajit Pai (see below).

2. Appointment of Ajit Pai as New FCC Chairman.

Chairman Pai's anti-net neutrality agenda has been clear since his appointment to the FCC commission by President Obama in 2012. In 2015, the former Verizon attorney was arguably its most visible and articulate critic, one of two commissioners to vote against net neutrality. Now as FCC chairman, Mr. Pai is in position to strip away or simply refuse to enforce vital internet oversight rules.

On May 18, 2017, the new FCC board's 2-1 vote was a first official step to reverse net neutrality in the United States. With a third Republican member soon joining the leadership, a ground swell of pro-net neutrality activism from businesses and the general public prior to a final vote later this year appears to be the only way to maintain Title II protection of the Internet.

Net Neutrality Day of Action: Defending Internet Freedom

Companies like Kickstarter, Reddit, and Amazon have deemed July 12, 2017 as a “Net Neutrality” Day of Action in defense of internet freedom. They plan to use a number of creative measures to educate and inform the public on the negative impact reversing FCC Title II protection would have on all Americans regardless of occupation, political affiliation, income level, etc.

A grassroots “Battle for the Net” is being spearheaded by three (3) organizations: Fight for the Future, Demand Progress, and the Free Press Action Fund. They want to drive home the following:

  • Net neutrality as an economic issue. Small business owners, startups and entrepreneurs need an open internet to grow, market and prosper.
  • Net neutrality as a liberty and freedom issue. The importance of maintaining Title II enforcement on the Internet to prevent telecommunications giants from blocking, throttling or otherwise interfering with web traffic.
  • Net neutrality as a racial and social justice issue. Maintaining a level playing field for visible minorities, the LGBT community and other historically disadvantaged groups to create, organize and develop without being subjected to “electronic” discrimination from powerful gatekeepers.

Lest you think that the net neutrality debate has been settled, take note that there are many articulate and powerful voices who strongly oppose the recent FCC ruling. There is another side to this debate, and in another article we explore the arguments against a more regulated Internet, and how more creativity and innovation will be released online without the heavy hand of government regulation of the internet.