If you get frustrated when it takes longer than normal for a site to load or appreciate the freedom to visit the site of your choosing without impediment, you should be watching what happens with net neutrality.
But what is net neutrality? Often referred to as “Open Internet,” net neutrality is the underlying principle of the Internet that internet service providers (ISPs) provide open and consistent access to any application or content that rides over their networks. This prevents ISPs that provide broadband and telecom service, like AT&T and Comcast, from also providing preferential treatment to companies willing and able to pay more for faster speeds. After all, if ISPs aren’t required to maintain consistent connectivity, consumers will likely limit their searches and consumption to sites that load easily.
Net neutrality additionally prevents the ISPs from blocking content of their choosing, which becomes important in that such blocking can put limits on free speech and press. The Internet is often a platform for marginalized voices. Small businesses, people of color, citizens of oppressive regimes, and activists can use the Internet to amplify their otherwise discreet and often silenced messages. Without net neutrality, ISPs could block unpopular speech and prevent dissident voices from speaking freely online. Without net neutrality, we may not know of many of the injustices perpetuated around the world or in our own back yard! On another note, less politically harmful but equally as disruptive, you may not be able to find the business or product you’re looking for or watch the movie of your choosing without an additional fee. Equally alarming, limited access to information and content can also impede competition, therefore potentially manipulating the market.
No matter your economic status, political beliefs, racial identity, sexual orientation, or ISP, you deserve to have the same access to any website you choose to visit. However, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai has a draft plan, which he has not presented publicly, that will reportedly severely weaken net neutrality rules for all. Instead of clear rules that require ISPs to treat all data the same, Pai is proposing a voluntary system where providers promise in writing they will not block web pages or slow down traffic. Theoretically, under his plan, as long as ISPs commit to protecting net neutrality in their terms of service, the FCC can eliminate its rules defaulting to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to punish ISPs that do not comply with their net neutrality promises.
This may sound “ok” on the surface, but ISPs would only be bound by net neutrality requirements to the extent they promise to follow them — no standardization or mandatory level of protection. This type of voluntary system leaves too much room for “creativity” on how to make money by manipulating internet traffic or how to silence unwelcomed perspectives. Importantly, this construct would require changes to FTC Act, leaves unclear how consumers would know whether content is being blocked in order to file a claim, and requires claims be tied to consumer harm. Additionally, there isn’t enough competition among telecom and broadband providers to demand compliance. Not to mention, there is little to stop ISPs from removing net neutrality clauses from their terms of service in the future.
Essentially, the greatest attribute of the Internet is its freedom, and the ability to search without restriction or limit is fundamental to such freedom. Rolling back current consumer and competition protections stands in direct opposition to maintaining a free and open internet.
In 2014, citizens and businesses successfully cried out for protection from manipulation of service speeds and paid prioritization. Then FCC Chairman Wheeler released rules, “the Open Internet Order,” one year later. Earlier this month, current FCC Chairman Pai discussed plans for net neutrality with the Internet Association — a lobbying group representing Facebook, Google, Twitter, and other large tech companies — and the organization took to the media to underscore their support for these rules. Internet Association members have made clear they are prepared to fight against any dilution of net neutrality rules. Hopefully, this strong show of support for strong net neutrality will cause Chairman Pai to reimagine his plan.
On the heels of President Trump signing the Congressional resolution to overturn Internet privacy rules — the first sign of an agenda to roll back FCC protections implemented in recent years — Pai’s inclination toward a voluntary framework is a call to vigilance, if not a call to action, for those invested in and enjoying net neutrality.
This week, members of Congress have answered the call by requesting Pai to reveal his net neutrality plans. Democracy and a stable economy demand access to information. Every citizen and business who values the freedom to search the Internet without restrictions and receive all content consistently should lend their voice to preserving net neutrality rules.