If you’ve used any form of social media in the past few months you’ve probably at least seen mention of Net neutrality. But what is it? When did the net become neutral? Why is it important? Why did it get repealed? And perhaps most importantly, what’s next?
If you’re not familiar with the issues, this video from the Wall Street Journal provides a concise explanation:
What Is Net Neutrality?
In 2015, the FCC enacted a series of regulations that we grew accustomed to calling Net neutrality. They served many purposes ranging from ensuring that Internet service providers did not throttle traffic to certain websites, to ensuring that carriers could not provide preferential treatment to certain services such as carrier owned or affiliated video streaming services. These regulations were hailed by many to be antimonopolistic and lowered barriers to entry helping increase competition and the free market.
Under these regulations, the Internet was no longer going to be treated as a privately traded good but as a public utility. This meant that the FCC had to change telecommunication companies from a Title 1 Information Service to a Title II Common Carrier. If this all just got really confusing to you, don’t worry, we’ll try and break it down into some simpler terms.
Essentially, Titles 1 and II refers to titles within the Communications Act of 1934 where the American government first began regulating wire and radio communications. The most important thing to know about these two distinctions is that Title II Common Carriers are subject to much more regulation than a Title 1 Information Service. Essentially, the FCC declared that open access to a free and unfettered Internet was fundamental to fully participate in society. Some of the key consumer protections included in Title II involved consumer privacy, universal service, and deployment.
One of the biggest issues surrounding the Internet is how to counter its extremely pervasive nature. Section 222 of the Communications Act requires Title II carriers to protect customer proprietary network information. This was used as the framework for a regulation that required all data from consumers over broadband networks and prevented the tracking of users without their permission. These protections were voted on and passed on October 27th, 2016, but had not even gone into place before they were rescinded on April 3rd, 2017. Despite the gutting of these protections, individuals are still able to bring any complaints to the FCC on a case-by-case basis.
The other key regulatory aspect of a Title II carrier is the requirement to affordable and universal connectivity, similar to how one has access to water, electric, and gas. One of the most critical sections of Title II is Section 224, which requires the larger providers to give nondiscriminatory access to utility poles that previously would have been prohibitively expensive for them to access. This allows for more companies to enter the market and provides a healthier, more competitive market for broadband internet. This leads to a cheaper and better product for consumers as new and small companies can reach out and provide service to previously under served areas.
However, as the above video mentions not all believe that Net neutrality is necessary, or even beneficial. Opponents cite typical antiregulatory arguments such as the stifling of corporate innovation and the overburdening of these corporations. Some even argue that we enjoyed a perfectly free internet before the regulations. These claims, however, are entirely false.
The Impact of Net Neutrality on Cell Phones
One great example of a way that Net neutrality protected small businesses is exemplified by your cell phone. As mobile phone technology advanced and we began to use cellular service for more than just calling, carriers saw new ways to exploit a new market: data. As more and more users began accessing the internet from their phones, data became more and more valuable, especially as carriers moved away from unlimited data plans. And while that in and of itself is not an issue, carriers paired this new rationing of data with plans that allowed unlimited access to certain parts of the internet. While at first that seems rather innocuous, if you look at how this operates, it incentivizes using small slices of the internet and disincentivizes using the rest, effectively boxing out small companies that can’t afford partnerships with the large telecommunication carriers. Some of these plans even seem almost malicious like a 2014 Virgin Mobile plan that the Wall Street Journal found that “offered a wireless plan that cost $12, but users were only allowed to access one website: either Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or Pinterest. If they wanted all four, it was $10 more a month. Another $5 and they could access any online music streaming service.” This multilevel pricing scheme could easily once again become common. To make matters worse for small businesses, carriers such as AT&T and Verizon also capitalized on this by offering free streaming services that they owned while still charging data rates for others. This undoubtedly creates stifling barriers to entry that clearly favors larger existing corporations.
A Canadian Company’s Infringement
A prime example of a time when a neutral Internet was infringed upon occurred in 2005 in Canada. A telecommunication company, Telus, blocked a website that was being used by striking workers to organize. This clear violation of the workers’ free speech was defended by Telus spokesman as a company protecting the safety of its employees because of pictures circulating of workers crossing the picket line. A court injunction later ruled in favor of the workers and Telus was required to unblock access to the site. This is a clear example of potential future abuses any major telecom company can easily accomplish without net neutrality.
Continue to Pursue Internet Freedom
While the FCC has already voted to repeal Net neutrality, the future of these protections are still in limbo. More and more politicians, states, and people continue to fight for what they feel is the only fair way for the Internet to advance. With a Congressional Review Act by Senator Markey of Massachusetts now reaching 40 supporters including one Republican, Senator Susan Collins of Maine, the Senate will have to have a floor vote to decide if they wish to revert back to the 2015 rulings of the FCC. This is not the only place where action is being taken as many states are introducing bills to create Net neutrality bubbles within the confines of their own borders. And of course millions of people continue to fight daily to try and retain their privacy and freedom over the Internet. If you would like to continue the fight you can help by contacting your Congressman or visit BattleForTheNet.com to find other ways to help.