Saving the Internet: Net neutrality for all
The Internet has changed our lives, but the Internet itself has also changed considerably in the last decade or so. It has grown from a small network used by a limited number of people to a global system easily accessible by anyone with an Internet service provider — at least, that is the principle.
Equal access to all of the Internet’s resources, a concept known as a free and open Internet, is just out of reach. ISPs like Comcast and AT&T control all Internet traffic in the United States. This means that they also have the ability and — as a company that obviously wants to make a profit — the monetary incentives to engage in activity that could threaten a free and open Internet.
In February, according to The New York Times, Comcast and Netflix announced a deal that would have Netflix pay Comcast for priority broadband service, meaning that during periods of high traffic, Comcast subscriber’s would have faster and more reliable access to Netflix’s content than before.
Netflix may have made this decision partly due to the previous months, wherein Netflix’s content was delivered to Comcast subscribers more than 25 percent slower. Comcast denied direct involvement in this and stated that it was instead caused by constraints of the intermediary system used by Netflix.
This agreement was unprecedented, and the paid prioritization of Internet traffic directly violates the idea of net neutrality, which is that all Internet traffic should be treated equally.
This incident only added fuel to the public debate over net neutrality that raged following a federal appeals court decision in January that the Federal Communications Commission does not have the authority to enforce some of their pre-existing rules on net neutrality. Under the full rules of the Open Internet Order of 2010, the deal between Netflix and Comcast might not have been possible.
However, since this ruling, the FCC has been forced back to the drawing board to create enforceable rules. They seem to have abandoned defending the idea altogether as FCC chairman Tom Wheeler introduced a new proposal that would allow for the prioritization of websites willing to make deals to pay ISPs for faster service, just as Netflix has done. FCC commissioners were divided on the issue and voted 3-2 to push the proposal through to public comment, after which they would go over all of the comments, revise the rules accordingly before voting again.
Thus, the FCC released a notice of proposed rulemaking and announced that it would be made open to comments from the public for four months starting May 15. A news release on the FCC website states the various aspects of the issue on which comments were sought, beginning with the question: “What is the right public policy to ensure that the Internet remains open?”
In the ensuing four months, many net neutrality advocates spoke up with their suggestions, insisting that paid prioritization hurts potential startup websites, hurts consumers and destroys the essential ideals of freedom, openness and equality that are the basis of the Internet.
Chemistry junior Janna Rancifer said she thinks that a lack of net neutrality will also “hinder free speech on the Internet.”
“Especially if — to put your message out there or to have people see it — you have to pay a lot more,” Rancifer said. “I don’t think it’s in the best interests of the majority of people… if a bunch of companies are able to decide ‘We’re going to get the fast lane. Everyone else is going to have a slow lane.’ ”
One proposed option that is repeatedly brought up by net neutrality advocates is a reclassification of the broadband Internet under the Telecommunications Act of 1996 from section 706 to a Title II industry. This would mean it could be regulated like phone service as a utility, and ISPs would be considered common carriers subject to greater oversight by the FCC.
In this new era of the Internet, the rules set up in 1996 are outdated. There are those who fear greater regulation and insist the market will fix itself, but as it is now, the system is broken. ISP’s pose too great of a risk to an open and free Internet, and companies like Comcast have too much power and too little competition to be willing to change on their own.
That is what made these last four months so important and the results so remarkable. The FCC’s final decision will be a major moment in the history of the Internet.
The FCC asked for the public’s comments and suggestions, and the public without a doubt responded. According to NPR, by the time the deadline for comments came on Sept. 15, a total of 3.7 million comments had been sent in to the FCC.
According to a study by Sunlight Foundation, less than one percent of the 800,000 comments sent to the FCC as of Aug. 5 were clearly opposed to net neutrality. Much of this support for net neutrality can be attributed to the vocal advocates including The Internet Association, of which web giants like Google, Facebook, Amazon and Ebay are a part.
There were also many viral campaigns online like Battle for the Net’s Internet Slowdown Day, during which a total of 40,000 websites showed a loading wheel on their homepage and linked visitors to comment on the FCC’s website that brought awareness to the issue.
Two charts on FCC website show spikes in comments coinciding with the release of Youtube videos posted by the HBO show Last Week Tonight with John Oliver on June 1 and by CollegeHumor, both of which encouraged viewers to send comments to the FCC.
The biggest spike, however, came with the Internet Slowdown Day on Sept. 10, with almost 250,000 comments received in one day. All of this proved to an amazing degree the ability of users of the Internet to speak up about what matters to them most: the Internet.
Now the question is whether or not the public’s voices are stronger than cable industry lobbyists’ money. It can only be hoped that the FFC board considers the public’s comments and modifies the proposal accordingly. Only then will we be able to talk about the summer of 2014 as the time we saved the Internet.
Opinion columnist Eileen Holley is an English literature senior and may be reached at [email protected]