Net Neutrality: A Good Thing

By: Jacob Taylor

Net neutrality is a big debate in my generation, because it takes into account the issues of free speech, government interaction with business, public policy, and internet user convenience. Internet Service Providers (ISP's) such as AT&T, Comcast, Charter, Verizon, or Qwest, can degrade or deny service to websites already, but only if it's in their user's contract. Currently, there are no laws or regulations against degrading or denying service to certain websites, or to certain types of traffic (such as HTTP, HTTPS, Gnutella (LimeWire), Bittorrent, or streaming video). If we do not support net neutrality, ISP's may be given free rein to filter or block traffic however they wish. This is a potentially devastating blow to the openness of the internet we have enjoyed thus far. The battle over whether the internet remains neutral has many facets, including the possibility of censorship of the internet, possible government interference with business, and changes in your experience on the internet.

As Eric Schmidt, a former CEO of Google and advisor to President Barack Obama said, "Creativity, innovation and a free and open marketplace are all at stake [...]" (Schmidt). Yet what's at stake is not merely "creativity, innovation and a free and open marketplace", it's also our heavily supported first amendment right to free speech, and our (some have argued) "right" to internet access. Supporting the strictest forms of net neutrality will help support all of those rights and expectations not just in the US, but abroad as well.

Now while I'm not here to argue whether access to the internet is a human right, it's common knowledge that many people who have internet are pretty attached to it by now (see all the smart phone users with internet on their phones 24/7/365 anywhere in the country). If net neutrality is not supported by public policy or by passing laws in support of it, we will slowly move closer to a divided-road internet. On this new divided-road internet, there would be a faster tier of websites who had paid the ISP's money to be delivered with a higher priority. A lower priority tier would exist with all the other websites. An example of what this would look like if it were to happen is this: Let's say you wanted to watch the latest viral video on YouTube. Now, YouTube hasn't paid your ISP for priority on their network, so your 3 minute video takes 10 minutes to load. That sucks, doesn't it? The truth is, YouTube probably wouldn't have any issues with the new system, but many of the smaller sites would. This type of system would make it much harder for all those other sites to exist, probably killing off many of them. The only sites left would be large media conglomerates and other companies able to support the added cost.

Other than the obvious inconvenience a non-neutral internet creates for users, this would create an internet that is in direct violation of our freedom of speech given to us in the constitution. The reason the internet has prospered so much is because the traffic on the internet was never subject to any sort of filtering, degradation, or disruption based on how much money you have. Individuals, Small businesses, and international mega-corporations are all on the same footing when it comes to getting data from your website to your users. If that were to change, as it would if net neutrality is not supported, those with money would, once again, be controlling what you get to see. In short, the internet would be much more like television, where only a few companies control a very large percentage of what is shown to users.

Some people might argue that net neutrality isn't a good thing and that companies should be free to innovate and make money in whatever legal way they wish. This is completely true, however the internet has created an open platform for anyone to create new ideas, try out new business models, and innovate in wide swaths of different technological areas, and I think it should be kept that way. Right now, everyone is on the same level, and the internet is growing faster than ever. If you take away that extremely low barrier to entry, you take away one of the largest frontiers of possibilities for people to make money, all for the sake of a few entrenched media conglomerates getting their way. If you keep the internet as a level playing field, you preserve the inherent spirit of innovation and advancement that has led to the internet's widespread success. President Obama said shortly after entering office,

"[...] we have to ensure free and open exchange of information and that starts with an open internet. I will take a backseat to no one in my commitment to net neutrality. Because once providers start to privilege some applications or websites over others, then the smaller voices get squeezed out and we all lose. The internet is perhaps the most open network in history and we have to keep it that way." (Obama)

And he's right. If net neutrality isn't supported, many of the smaller (but no less important) voices will be squeezed out of the internet because they cannot afford to pay the high premium of delivery.

Another popular argument against net neutrality is that (because non-neutral network policies can be used for good, in small applications) a non-neutral internet would allow Internet Service Providers to better deal with rising bandwidth usage, due to the advent of streaming media such as mp3s, video and recently streaming high definition video. A vocal minority of ISP's are concerned about the possibility of their networks (and the internet in general) running out of available bandwidth, as if the bandwidth is a finite amount of data you can transfer at any one time. This assumption is faulty due to the fact that the backbone of the internet gets faster as technology improves, and this improvement in speed outpaces the so called "'bandwidth explosion' used to justify [...] regulation or deregulation of the Internet" (Nyquist Capital). As any data transfer may take multiple paths to get to the same place, a slowdown in one area of the internet won't adversely affect the rest of the internet.

Should net neutrality be enforced by the FCC, we would likely see our current staggering pace of innovation continue. People would still be able to create entire web spheres around pictures of cute kittens with grammatically incorrect text, just as they would be able to create websites as great as YouTube, or whatever comes after it. Dissidents in Iran would still be able to use Twitter to organize protests against their government, just as Vivid can make a multimillion dollar/year industry from selling adult content online. The internet is a limitless platform for innovation and culture exchange, and supporting net neutrality merely makes sure that stays the case.

If net neutrality is not supported, or is even struck down, there looms the possibility of a tiered internet, not just tiered how it is currently with multiple bandwidth speeds in a pricing structure (but still the same fundamental access to ALL of the internet), but preferential treatment of certain websites traffic along tiers that could stifle innovation at the cost of a quick buck for the internet service providers.

As for moving forward with net neutrality, a few steps have already been taken. Late in 2008, Congress passed a bill giving the Federal Communications Commission authority over the internet with the intentions of creating a network neutrality policy; however the bill had no teeth so the FCC can create policies covering the internet but they cannot reliably enforce them. Their policies are more like a strong suggestion. The FCC took Comcast to court in 2009 over some of their network policies which were not neutral, and that case is still playing out in the appellate courts. Google has also been leading the net neutrality debate on their official public policy blog by lobbying for net neutrality in our nation's capital and informing users as to why they should care about it. On their public policy blog Google says, "Any entrepreneur with an idea has always been able to create a website and share their ideas globally -- without paying extra tolls to have their content seen by other users. An open Internet made Google possible eleven years ago, and it's going to make the next Google possible" (Google Public Policy Blog). This is exactly the spirit that needs to be preserved by pro net neutrality legislation.