In February, the Federal Communications Commission voted in favor of regulations reclassifying broadband Internet as public utility under Title II of the Communications Act, in the form of the Bright Line Rules. The new rules prohibit Internet service providers, including cellular carriers from blocking, slowing down or speeding up online traffic, giving priority to Web services in exchange for payment or decide which applications cost your data—known as zero-rating. In June, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit upheld the vote stating that the Commission exercised its proper authority when it reclassified broadband Internet access as a regulated, common-carrier service, rejecting the U.S. Telecom Association, an industry group representing providers including Verizon, Comcast and AT&T, challenge.
Pundits debate that the end of net neutrality is the greatest threat the Internet has ever faced. Is this true? And what exactly is net neutrality? To better understand net neutrality, you need to understand how and why the free exchange of information that is currently allowed on the Internet is so critically important.
Picture the Internet as a vast, modern high-speed, multi-lane highway. Traffic freely flows on this highway, at any speed it desires. Every vehicle has equal access to this highway, and every vehicle goes wherever it pleases, with no tolls or charges. This is the Internet as it currently stands. Every single piece of data – e-mails, streaming videos, business presentations, and personal pictures - has the same right of access, and it all travels to its destination at the speed of light. No piece of data has higher priority than any other, and no user has to pay extra to get certain types of data, such as streaming video. Now, picture the same vast, modern high-speed multi-lane highway, but running along this highwy is a series of much smaller, two-lane roads, each with a regular series of toll booths. Highway access is limited to a specific brand of car, or people who pay a high tariff to get access to the highway, where they can drive as fast as they please. Meanwhile, traffic on the two-lane roads is bumper-to-bumper, and slowly lumbering along between toll booths, which creates a very slow, expensive drive for those cars. This is the Internet of the future, if net neutrality is legislated out of existence. The free and equal exchange of packets of information is at the very heart of the internet. It is this free exchange which made the modern internet possible, and with it the many business, educational, and informational changes it has brought around the globe.
For decades, no one questioned or challenged this core concept. The information was there for the taking, and millions of Internet uses reaped the benefits of growing high-speed internet and the many new resources it made available. Ironically, the very thing that made the Internet successful and widespread also gave birth to the very thing that would threaten the Internet’s future: the growth of high-speed Internet during the first decade of this century. High-speed internet caused an explosion in video-on-demand and streaming video services, such as Netflix, Hulu, and HBO Now. As the Internet became increasingly faster and available to an ever-increasing audience, the popularity of video services exploded—and planted the seeds of the Internet’s potential destruction. Streaming video consumes large amounts of data. Internet service providers, or ISPs, such as Time Warner, ComCast and AT&T, saw this and realized that large amounts of the bandwidth they were providing to their customers was being disproportionately used by customers who were using streaming video services.
Under existing net neutrality laws, the ISPs were not allowed to charge their customers or the streaming video provider additional charges to carry the video data. This left ISPs in a position where their networks are facing potential slowdowns due to bandwidth congestion caused by streaming video, and, later, additional services such as streaming gaming services, without the right to demand additional compensation. This lead to ISPs applying increasing pressure to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the US Congress to end net neutrality and to in effect allow the ISPs to develop a multi-tier Internet. In a post-net neutrality world, ISPs would be allowed to decide what traffic they would carry on their networks, and at what cost. ISPS could also in affect create bundles of internet services—just as they have with cable television—in which they could charge extra for access to certain types of data, such as streaming video, and specifically which streaming video service you would be allowed to stream on their data network. ISPs would also have free reign to charge specific web sites, such as Facebook, a fee to allow customers on their data network to access the web site, as well as billing services such as Netflix for the amount of data that Netflix customers consumed on the ISP’s data network.
As a result, Internet access costs for websites, service providers such Netflix, and individual businesses and consumers will quickly spiral out of control. Many sites or service providers would simply cease to operate, limited the range of options available to internet users. The worst side-effect of the end of net neutrality, however, would be the death of diversity on the Internet, and the death of the free information exchange which sparked much of the progress—economic, social, and technological—of the last two decades.
As it currently stands, every voice on the Internet stands equal with every other voice. Every site has equal access to the same audience, and equal opportunity to state their case to the conscience of the world. The death of net neutrality will end this. The only voices on the Internet will be those who can pay to be heard. Individual voices of dissent will be silenced and replaced with corporate and approved establishment voices. Consider, for instance, the growing progress made in turning back the clock on global warming. Consider how little would have been done if the researchers and activists that lead the fight were not given access to the Internet—or were simply drowned out, silenced, or forced off the Internet by deep-pocketed corporate sites or government agencies who saw more profit in maintaining the status quo. Similarly, the free exchange of knowledge which has led to much of the progress of the last decade would also be forever silenced in a post-net neutrality world. The free spread of knowledge and ideas, particularly ideas which are seen as threateningly to the established governments or business interest, would be simply forced off the internet and silenced. Attempts to end net neutrality have thus far been unsuccessful. However, there is no guarantee that the ISPs have given up their fight.