The Implications Of The Loss Of Net Neutrality In America

Net neutrality is the concept that data on the internet should be treated equally. It means that your internet service provider doesn’t get to dictate or influence your content. Even before the introduction of the internet, the question of how a network’s owners should treat the users has been debated. Over the last decade and a half, corporations supporting both sides of the issue have been relentlessly lobbying Congress to set rules concerning net neutrality. In 2015, the FCC under Obama’s administration finally ruled to classify broadband as a common carrier, preserving net neutrality. A common carrier must provide its service without discrimination - airlines, railroads, taxis all fall under this category. The issue now is that the current head of the FCC, Ajit Pai, under Trump’s administration, has voted and successfully appealed the 2015 Open Internet Order, thereby killing net neutrality. Internet service providers can now choose to block certain sites and services, throttle internet speeds as they choose and offer paid prioritization. This is a very important issue to me as the loss of net neutrality would kill the potential of the internet.

This action has a lot of implications and will destroy the internet as we know it. First of all, it will result in the internet becoming much more prohibitive on startups. ISPs may choose to start offering individual “internet packages” for social media, gaming, video - much like with cable. Portugal, a country without net neutrality already has such systems in place. In New Zealand, these packages often include “Smart Net” bundles you can purchase that are a group of services/apps that can be used exempt from your internet plan. Small startups and businesses won’t be able to afford to pay to be on these packages and subsequently remain unseen. To make things even worse, these packages provide additional obstacles and prevent customers from choosing alternatives. Someone who has a video package that includes unlimited Netflix usage might not take a second glance at a new streaming service that offers a better deal. Innovative new services will be snuffled out before they can thrive.

Second, marginalized voices will be shut out. An open and undiscriminating internet network helped grassroots organizations mobilize. While net neutrality will affect all Americans, it will be devastating for marginalized groups. The internet has become an important tool in helping marginalized groups (indigenous, LGBT, people of colour) be seen, heard and communicate. With the loss of net neutrality, ISPs will be able to charge for “fast lane” internet service. Smaller websites like Wear your voice won’t have the revenue to pay for fast lane status and their readers and subscribers are often from marginalized groups who are disproportionately affected by poverty and may not have the extra cash for such things either.

Third, is that there is a remarkable lack of ISP competition within the US. In a competitive market, ISPs would build more infrastructure and expand their congested networks or face being penalized by customers switching to their competitors. However, most areas (90% as of 2015) in the U. S. only have one or two options to choose from, even fewer if you want higher internet speeds (100mbps). After decades of mergers and the 1996 Telecommunications Act which allowed for media cross-ownership, duopolies have been formed. The U. S. wireless network market is dominated by Verizon and AT&T with Comcast and Time Warner covering wired network. These companies have more than enough resources to expand their infrastructure but they have a lack of incentive to do so. Broadband investment has gone down 26% in the last six years compared to the previous five. The providers have gotten away with their monopolies for so long in part because until 2015, the FCC had defined any ISP delivering even 4 mbps as “broadband'; recently shifted to 25 mbps. This lack of competition furthers the gravitude of necessity for net neutrality regulations.

Fourth, there is a digital divide between rural and urban areas when it comes to broadband access (a consistent 10% lower amount of rural households have access to broadband when compared to urban households). Even if they do have access to broadband, rural areas usually have slow and unreliable service with no alternatives. In the 21st century where the internet is essential as an information source and marketing tool, this is a serious disadvantage. Ajit Pai fortunately does take the stance of building more infrastructure in rural areas so all Americans can access the net. However, allowing for paid prioritization to encourage ISPs to expand their infrastructure is a bad idea for the consumer. Trusting companies that are accountable to their shareholders and not the American people will lead to the same problems of high priced, low speed service due to a lack of alternatives.

Finally, it’s hard for your voice to be heard. Multiple polls over the years have found that the general public overwhelmingly supports net neutrality, both Democrats and Republicans. As such, a record 22 million comments were recorded on the FCC’s page during the public comment period. However, millions of these comments were identical to each other and other comments followed the exact same sentence structure with select different wording. Over half of the comments came from temporary or fake email addresses. Only a small fraction (about one million) are genuinely unique, the rest being either form letters or bots. Many Americans who do support net neutrality use the pre-written letters that some sites like battleforthenet. com provide. These people may fervently care about net neutrality and believe that the form letter better articulates what they want to say, yet the botted comments undermine the significance of their contribution. In addition, the FCC has only addressed comments that directly attacked their proposal legally. The majority of Americans aren’t lawyers, but that shouldn’t mean that their opinion can just be discarded. The FCC themselves haven’t made effort to distinguish real and fake comments. One of the FCC’s democratic commissioners claims that this response “shows the FCC's sheer contempt for public input and unreasonable failure to support integrity in its process”. The disregard for public opinion in the process of the repeal is entirely undemocratic.

This issue will affect all Americans and has an international impact too. Locally, broadband prices could rise, hidden under hard to compare internet packages. Small grassroot organizations and entrepreneurs will be snuffed out. Individuals are attempting to track attempts of paid prioritization with apps like “WeHe” and pressure groups are being formed. Many people write to the representative of their constituency. And many states are fighting back too, with more than 20 lawsuits filed by state attorneys general, to state level legislation introduced by both Democrats and Republicans. Federally, this could become a campaign issue with Democrats easily painting the Republican lead FCC as the antagonists. Internationally, ISPs in other countries will have a renewed effort in getting rid of net neutrality. Some services located in the U. S. might become more expensive as companies shift fees over to consumers.

Obama’s 2015 Open Net Order that classifies ISPs as common carriers is absolutely essential for the internet to remain innovative. The policy prevents ISPs from exploiting consumers through strong clear rules such as “No Unreasonable Interference or Unreasonable Disadvantage to Consumers or Edge Providers”. It also protects consumers with statements of no blocking, throttling or paid prioritization. A policy I don’t like is Ajit Pai’s Declaratory Ruling which would reclassify broadband Internet access as an “information service” and heavily lessens regulations on them. I would suggest he repeal his repeal, or continue FCC regulations of ISPs instead of transferring the responsibility to the Federal Trade Commision who don’t have the resources to do so. Ajit Pai should understand that the internet is not a finite resource for companies to exploit, but a system of communication and free commerce that needs to be protected.

10 October 2020
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