In case you didn’t realize, there’s a war going on for the future of cyberspace.
Who are the opposing factions, you wonder? Essentially those for and those against net neutrality. The battlefield? Congress. It would behoove me to admit that I also was a bit shaky on the concepts of net neutrality as of only a month ago. “Something to do with free internet versus massive corporations vying for supreme ownership of the web”, I thought upon spotting the hashtag dozens of times.
I was partly correct. Sort of. Instead of relying on my vaguely misinformed understanding of the debate, we’re going to enlist the help of some experts to understand the history and relevance of net neutrality. We will survey both sides, for and against (general, but useful categories), while trying to best understand the way forward for a more progressive, inclusive American society. For those of you who don’t know, the concept of net neutrality essentially centers around the idea that internet service providers (ISPs) “should not treat traffic traversing their networks differently based on its source, content, use, &c.
That is, they should be passive conduits that treat all data the same.” This explanation comes from Professor Gus Hurwitz, an expert on the subject who details the debate in far more articulate terms in this Washington Post interview/article with columnist Orin Kerr. But in layman’s terms, the 2015 net neutrality act prevented broadband companies from slowing or blocking access to websites and services. It also prohibited these companies from offering priority services for a fee, which many speculated would lead to internet “fast lanes”. These rules seem great in theory.
But many companies and experts saw the rules as unnecessary, heavy-handed, and a great impediment to development and innovation. Fast forward two years to December 14th, 2017. Under their new chairman, Ajit Pai, the FCC voted to repeal the measures, returning the commission to a more “light touch” approach to regulation.
The argument for repealing the rules goes like this: while there are no immediate plans to introduce paid-priority services, ISPs suggest that certain industries, like medicine, require fast, low-latency internet connections that an extra fee model could provide without impeding normal Americans’ access. But the fight is not over. On January 8th, a Senate bill that would reverse the FCC’s decision to repeal net neutrality earned its 30th co sponsor – Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) – which ensures that the bill will now be put to vote on the Senate floor.
The decision to repeal net neutrality was a wake up call for many Americans who had never before heard of the issue. Well into our current epoch of political tribalism, the move sparked intense, furious protests by those claiming ending net neutrality rules would result it Comcast becoming the next SkyNet, heralding an internet apocalypse. However, If you move past the passionate resistance, particularly on those who support the 2015 FCC regulations, you’ll find that most people have no idea what they’re talking about. The ending of anything “neutral” sounds automatically evil or totalitarian. After some investigation, it appears to me that the most sensible approach to this conundrum is not to enforce neutrality (it has never been “neutral”), but rather, in the words of Robert McMillan over at Wired, to “increase competition among ISPs”, thus preventing the major players like AT and Comcast from owning such a major piece of the pie that they monopolize the market for bandwidth. Above all, this debate highlights the ignorance that most Americans have about the way the internet works – and the business concepts behind it.
We like to strive for an egalitarian, meritocratic society, often without realizing that rules and regulations are actually key to maintaining such neutrality and fairness compared to the option of no rules at all. Technology is advancing more rapidly than ever before. Though time consuming and difficult, its up to us as citizens to remain vigilant and informed about issues that affect us – while not descending to uninformed tribalism and deepening the political divide without knowing all the facts.