Since the 1990s, the internet has become so much a part of our lives that it’s easy to imagine that it will always remain the free and open medium it is now. We’d like to believe it will remain a place where you can always access any lawful content you want and where those delivering that content can’t play favorites because they disagree with the message being delivered or want to charge more money for faster delivery. However, despite that we have rules in place protecting network neutrality thanks to the Federal Communications Commission, there may be no such guarantees after January 20, 2017. Why? Because not only did 60 million voters elect an unrespectable man like our soon-to-be groper-in-chief, Republicans have control of both houses in Congress and will more than likely retain power on the Supreme Court. Furthermore, there Senate hasn’t reconfirmed a Democratic FCC commissioner to another 5-year-term. Not only that, but the man President-Elect Evil Cheeto Head wants to chair the FCC is a longtime opponent of net neutrality and telecom lobbyist. If Donald Trump and his swamp cronies have their way within the next 4-8 years, this open internet and the network neutrality principles that sustain it, could be a thing of the past. Profits and corporate disfavor of controversial viewpoints or competing services can change both of what you see online and your connection quality. And the need to monitor what you do online in order to play favorites means even more consumer privacy invasions piled up on top of the NSA’s prying eyes. A lot of Americans don’t know about net neutrality because it doesn’t get a lot of coverage on the news media than it should. As for me, I first heard about this from my parents while I was in high school after they watched something from Bill Moyers about it. Those who do overwhelmingly support it across the political spectrum. And many Americans take the notion of a free and open internet for granted which they will sure to miss. But unfortunately, its share of detractors are in high positions of power as well as contribute generously to Republican politicians. Here I list a rough FAQ on net neutrality basics because if there’s a time we need to know and preserve net neutrality to protect the internet, it is now.
What Is Network Neutrality?
Network neutrality is the guiding principle that internet service providers and government regulators should allow access to all applications and content regardless of source and without favoring or blocking particular products or websites. In other words, while ISPs provide you access to the internet, they should treat all services and websites the equally, which lets you use it as much as you want for anything you want at the cost of a monthly fee. Network neutrality preserves a free and open internet while preventing companies from discriminating against different kinds of websites and services.
What’s the Difference Between ISPs and Content Providers?
An ISP is a company that provides you access to the Internet like AT&T, Comcast, Verizon, Cox, Charter, and Time Warner Cable. Most people get their high-speed internet access from only these few telecommunication giants. The very few smaller carriers usually rely on the big guys to serve their customers. Content providers are companies that create and/or distribute videos and programs like Netflix and Amazon. Sometimes ISPs can also be content providers as well since Comcast owns NBC Universal as well as delivers TV shows and movies through its Xfinity internet service.
Why Should We Care About Network Neutrality?
Network neutrality is essential because a free and open internet is the single greatest technology of our times that stimulates ISP competition, helps prevent unfair pricing practices, promotes innovation, promotes the spread of ideas, drives entrepreneurship, and protects freedom of speech. Overall, network neutrality keeps the internet a cornerstone of freedom and opportunity. When we receive or send data over the internet, we expect our ISPs to transfer it from one end of the network to the other. We don’t expect them to analyze or manipulate it. Without net neutrality, telecommunications companies can carve the internet into fast and slow lanes. An ISP can slow down its competitors’ content or block political opinions it disagreed with. ISPs can also charge extra fees to the few content companies that could afford to pay for preferential treatment while relegating everyone else to a slower rate of service. Such actions could destroy an open internet. So this is a very important issue.
Why Would the Telecoms Want to Interfere with Internet Data?
Well, the answer boils down to simple profit and corporate interests. Companies might want to interfere with speech that makes them look bad, block applications that compete with their own, or increase their profit by forcing developers to pay more to avoid having their data blocked or slowed down.
Won’t Competition Prevent Them from Doing Any of This?
Sorry, free-market believers, but your faith in the divine forces of capitalism will not save you. Normally competition should and would prevent telecoms from interfering with internet data. But it won’t. For one, data manipulation isn’t always easily detectable. Content can be delayed or distorted in a number of subtle ways. Secondly, building a high-speed broadband service is very expensive so there aren’t many of them. So it’s no surprise that they tend to be big phone and cable companies because they already have the data “pipes” in place. Most Americans don’t have more than a handful for legitimate high-speed broadband options at home (the vast majority have 3 or fewer). What this means is that customers can’t switch if big broadband providers start messing around with their service. Additionally, big content providers like Netflix have to send their data through these “last mile” gatekeepers. So, all you free-market absolutist libertarians, the current market competition just isn’t enough to stop them from blocking services or charging more for a fast lane.
Have There Been Any Actual Instances of Service Providers Interfering with the Internet or Is This All Theoretical?
Real abuses have happened consistently over the past decade. New technologies now allow telecom companies to scrutinize over every piece of information we send or receive online like websites, email, videos, Internet phone calls, or data generated by games or social networks. They could also program the computers that route that information to interfere with the data flow by slowing down or blocking traffic and communicators that they don’t like while speeding up traffic they do or that pays them extra for the privilege. To put it this way, imagine if your phone company could mess with your calls every time you tried to order a pizza from Domino’s because Pizza Hut is paying them to route their calls first. Though opponents claim the threat is only “theoretical” or that applying common carrier principles to the internet is a “solution in search of a problem,” there have been numerous incidents of abuse. There’s AT&T censoring words from Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder when he sang, “George Bush, leave this world alone” and “George Bush find yourself another home.” The company complained the words were censored to prevent youth visiting the website from being exposed to “excessive profanity.” Though the song contained none. They later blamed it on an external website contractor hired to screen the performance. There’s Comcast discriminating against an entire class of online activities by using deep packet inspection to block file transfers from customers using popular peer-to-peer networks like BitTorrent, eDonkey, and Gnutella. In national tests conducted by the Associated Press, their actions were confirmed to be unrelated to network congestion since blocking took place at times when it wasn’t congested. And while Comcast blocked applications often used in trade videos like pirated content, much of what was blocked was legitimate. Then we have Verizon cutting off text-messaging program by the pro-choice group NARAL that it used to send messages to its supporters. The company stated that it wouldn’t service programs from any group “that seeks to promote an agenda or distribute content that, in its discretion, may be seen as controversial or unsavory to any of our users.” And that was just 2007. These are just incidents but this kind of behavior hasn’t become broadly accepted to the internet structure. But without enforceable net neutrality rules in place (which can happen under a Trump administration), that could quickly happen. The consistency of these abuses tells us all we need to know about what will happen if companies are permitted to exploit their power over our Internet connections.
Why Is Network Neutrality Important for Business?
Net neutrality is crucial for small business owners, startups, and entrepreneurs, because they rely on an open internet to launch their business, create a market, advertise their products and services, and distribute their goods to customers. They need an open internet to foster job growth, competition, and innovation in the 21st century and beyond. Net neutrality lowers the barriers for them by ensuring the web is a fair and level playing field. And it’s because of net neutrality that businesses and entrepreneurs are able to thrive online. They use the internet to reach new customers as well as showcase their goods, applications and services. Since ISPs are by definition the gatekeepers to the internet, they would seize every possible opportunity to profit from that gatekeeper control if net neutrality wasn’t in place while the next Google wouldn’t get off the ground. So no company should be able to interfere with this open marketplace.
Why Is Network Neutrality Important for Communities of Color?
The open internet allows communities of color to tell their own stories as well as organize for racial and social justice. The mainstream media has failed to allow people of color speak for themselves. And due to economic inequality and runaway media consolidation, they own only a handful of broadcast stations. This lack of divers ownership is a primary reason why the media has gotten away with portraying minority communities stereotypically. The open internet gives marginalized voices opportunities to be heard which they wouldn’t previously have access to. Without net neutrality, ISPs could block unpopular speech and prevent dissident voices from speaking freely online. This would lead people of color to lose a vital platform. Not to mention, millions of minority owned small businesses wouldn’t be able to compete with large corporations online, which would further deepen economic inequality in our nation’s most vulnerable communities. This isn’t just limited to communities of color either. For instance, the Internet is a great place to find out about environmental disasters in rural areas that tend to slip under the radar, which I’ve put to very good use. Not to mention, since runaway media consolidation and decline in newspapers has led to less local voices being heard from within their communities and less local content being produced, having a free and open internet more than makes up for it.
Why Do We Need to Defend Network Neutrality?
Who Supports Network Neutrality?
The good news is that network neutrality enjoys huge bipartisan support among consumers since more than 4 million Americans have filed public comments with the FCC about it, which is more than any other issue it’s handled. Chances are if Americans have heard of net neutrality, they most likely support it regardless of race, age, creed, political stance, or income level. The fact so many organizations support it like Greenpeace, Gun Owners of America, the Christian Coalition, the Electronic Frontiers Foundation, AARP, American Library Association, Consumer Federation of America, and the Media Access Project illustrates how popular net neutrality is across the political spectrum. You can include unions and religious institutions as well. It also enjoys strong support from small businesses and large companies like Apple, Netflix, Tumblr, Kickstarter, Wikia, Microsoft, Facebook, Twitter, Google, Amazon, eBay, Yahoo!, Etsy, and others. President Barack Obama is one of the most prominent supporters of net neutrality whose expressed commitment to the cause helped lead to the landmark 2015 FCC ruling that designated the internet as a utility to preserve it and so are most Democratic Party politicians.
Who Opposes Network Neutrality?
The bad news is that despite being a highly good and popular idea, net neutrality has a lot of very powerful enemies such as telecommunications industries, some network engineers, conservative to libertarian scholars, and many Republican politicians. Major ISPs and telecommunication companies like Comcast, Verizon, Cox, AT&T, and Time Warner mainly oppose net neutrality because they want to manage internet access like blocking charging users different rates to access different services or simply blocking certain services altogether. The 2015 FCC Title II ruling was not great to their bottom line that they’ve vowed to fight these regulations all the way to the Supreme Court. And in fact, the last time the FCC tried to instill net neutrality protections, Verizon sued and the rules were overturned by a federal court in 2014. These companies have lobbied against net neutrality 3 times as hard as its biggest proponents as well as outspent them 5 to 1. They also heavily contribute to Republican political campaigns which explains why so many GOP politicians oppose net neutrality while their constituents overwhelmingly don’t. Many of these politicians call it, “Obamacare for the Internet.” Organizations against net neutrality are usually free-market advocacy groups like FreedomWorks, Americans for Prosperity, the American Enterprise Institute, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, Citizens Against Government Waste, and the Progress and Freedom Foundation. Tech companies like IBM, Intel, Cisco, Qualcomm, and Juniper also oppose net neutrality measures as well.
Why Don’t We Hear About Network Neutrality?
Mostly because the mainstream media rarely talks about it if ever. Yes, there may have been an episode of John Oliver about it as well as some discussion on PBS but that’s about it. A big reason for this is media consolidation. As of now, only 6 corporations control 90% of media in the United States, including Comcast and Time Warner who are known to oppose net neutrality. And it doesn’t help that Comcast owns MSNBC while Time Warner owns CNN. Then there’s Fox News which is a conservative news outlet owned by Rupert Murdoch. Not to mention, a lot of telecoms sponsor a lot of news programming which can influence their content. The fact so many Americans have never heard about net neutrality leads them to take the notion of a free internet for granted. And if Trump’s administration gets rid of it, most Americans will miss it.
What Can We Do to Protect Network Neutrality?
Well, you can do a lot of things to protect network neutrality. You can e-mail the Federal Communications Commission. You can contact your state representatives (though make sure they’re not against net neutrality before you do so because a lot of them receive campaign contributions from giant telecom companies. So if you live in Pennsylvania and your representative is Tim Murphy or Joseph Pitts, contact Senator Bob Casey instead. Because Senator Pat Toomey is against net neutrality, too, along with these big telecom industry stooges). You can donate to civil liberties and consumer groups like Public Knowledge, Electronic Frontiers Foundation, Free Press, Consumers Union, and the American Civil Liberties Union. You can stay informed and tell your friends. At any rate, remember that network neutrality isn’t a partisan issue so don’t let Trump’s swamp cronies let telecom companies slow down or block sites users love. And let the FCC use its Title II powers to stop them.