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Why the Fuss over Net Neutrality?

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Why the Fuss over Net Neutrality?

The question of whether to keep the internet freely accessible is one of the most important issues in our modern, technology-driven society. You need to understand both sides of this complicated topic.

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To most internet users, “net neutrality” is nothing more than a distant political battle.

But take a closer look. During the summer, 80,000 websites and content providers—including Facebook, Amazon, Google, Twitter, Netflix and Reddit—took part in an online “day of action” protest against government plans to change current net neutrality rules.

Some websites even urged internet consumers to go directly to Congress, offering to prepare them with statements and even pay for their travel expenses incurred while traveling to the capital.

In September, scores of internet consumers descended on Washington, D.C., to meet with lawmakers and “express the importance of net neutrality to their lives, schools, and businesses,” Consumer Reports stated.

Ultimately, their motive was to garner congressional support to oppose what they see as the Federal Communications Commission’s effort to repeal net neutrality rules.

Explaining the reasons for its actions, the FCC released a statement on its website called Restoring Internet Freedom—which judging by the title, would seem to support the thinking of the content providers. However, digging into the details of their statement makes it clear that how each side hopes to achieve this “freedom” is fundamentally different.

Instead of keeping in place the more recent and substantial regulations guaranteeing neutrality on the web, the FCC “proposed to return the U.S. to the bipartisan, light-touch regulatory framework under which a free and open Internet flourished for almost 20 years.”

This “light-touch” would be a shift from the policies established during the Obama administration, when the FCC adopted the Open Internet Order, which put substantial rules in place to help ensure net neutrality.

In January 2017, however, newly inaugurated President Donald Trump named Ajit Varadaraj Pai as the FCC’s new chairman. Mr. Pai objected to the Open Internet Order and is attempting to move away from the net neutrality regulatory practices in effect since the order was passed.

Much of this debate over internet freedom does not seem to matter much to everyday internet users, in part because of the confusion surrounding the issue. Yet here is why the debate over net neutrality should matter to you.

The Basics

Net neutrality, is the concept that the entire internet, regardless of content, should be delivered to consumers in the same manner. In other words, all internet end users—regardless of how much they pay for internet service—will have equal access to the same websites. This guarantee of “neutrality,” also benefits content providers by not forcing them to pay a premium to internet service providers (ISP), generally cable companies, to deliver their content. Assuring these benefits to consumers and content providers was the goal of the Open Internet Order.

Supporters of net neutrality regulations argue that without them ISPs could ultimately threaten individual expression and First Amendment rights.

Without a government regulated internet guaranteeing all content be treated the same, some fear corporate America would take over the web in an effort to boost profits and control content. One such method profit-driven corporations could employ is a two-network system.

In this system, one network would be a priority tier eventually controlled by a few multinational corporations that have the money to participate. Such corporations would pay for access to an internet that would be much faster and resemble today’s available speeds.

Those who could not afford to pay would be relegated to the other “lane” that would consist of secondary traffic moving at a slower pace, experiencing slower load times of websites.

Many are concerned that this two-tier system would stifle innovation and leave only the largest players surviving—effectively monopolizing the internet to only those with the resources to compete. Today’s internet, which allows for anyone to be heard regardless of their wherewithal, would effectively come to an end.

Opponents of net neutrality regulations, however, also use inhibited innovation as their argument, adding that the rules also impede investment growth. An entrepreneur wrote in Forbes that not having government regulation of the internet would increase competition and provide more privacy.

“Everyone seems to agree that monopolies are bad and competition is good, and just like you, I would like to see more competition,” he wrote. “But if monopolies are bad, why should we trust the U.S. government, the largest, most powerful monopoly in the world?”

He also argued that the Founding Fathers designed government to be “slow, inefficient, and plagued by gridlock, because they knew the greatest danger to individual freedom came from a government that could move quickly,” and that “we shouldn’t rely on it to provide us with products and services we want in a timely manner at a high level of quality.”

In the end, both supporters and opponents of net neutrality regulations say they want to do what is best for ordinary internet-users in America. Yet they both cannot agree on whether their goals will come through more or less regulation.

The Case for Net Neutrality

When the internet was first established, it was an extremely loose network of government and universities’ computer systems. The underlying structure of the way data flows was based on a protocol that was loose, unstructured and unsecured.

A case can be argued that innovation flourishes when the greatest minds are able to work and be funded without the concern of controls from litigation or monopolies suppressing new ideas. Like the regulated telephone companies of the past, monopolies have enormous incentive to stop innovations that would unseat them from positions of power.

Over the last decade, the number of ISPs has shrunk considerably. At one time able to compete, many local providers have been litigated or bought out of existence, leaving only large players to provide critical internet service to hundreds of millions of Americans.

A similar situation occurred in the early part of the 20th century in relation to a new technology—the national telephone system. One large telephone company began to dominate the market to the exclusion of smaller businesses.

This large amount of power in the hands of so few, led to the creation of the Telecommunications Act of 1934. Title II of this act classifies what is known as a “common carrier,” and with this designation comes hundreds of pages of regulations to ensure these companies function “in the public interest” and not solely for themselves.

Near the end of the Obama administration, the FCC determined that these same Title II restrictions should be applied to ISPs—meaning they too would be subject to common carrier regulations.

What does this mean for you? Odds are you are among scores of millions that rely on the internet for a multitude of services—especially news and entertainment. Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, Bing, Google and similar services are used by hundreds of millions daily.

As a “common carrier,” ISPs are not allowed to treat any type of data differently. For instance, an ISP is not allowed to prioritize Netflix traffic over a news site, like the one you are on now. Anyone with an internet connection can easily connect to any website or service and expect to receive the content as quickly as they would any service.

Without the protection of Title II, your ISP could start to charge websites to be on a faster network. While not a problem for major corporations, millions of smaller and independent companies could not afford to pay and their web presence would effectively disappear given that people want their content quickly.

New services would face a huge financial obstacle that would effectively prevent them from getting off the ground. For instance, Facebook—used by billions today—would never have become more than an idea developed in a college dorm room if its inventor had been required to pay.

If the FCC removes the Title II requirement for ISPs, the power of the pipe, as it is called, would fall back on ISPs to decide if they would charge for certain types of traffic. They could further their interests, and charge a premium for their service. This puts control in the hands of large corporate providers, who must serve their bottom line and stock holders.

Ultimately, any costs paid by large corporations end up effecting your bank account. Large ISPs maintain huge profits when you pay more for internet services.

From the perspective of the consumer, it seems obvious to keep net neutrality regulations in place and allow Title II to prevent the problem it was created to solve.

But it is not that simple.

The Case Against

The same legislative act that advocates champion as the legal framework to establish and maintain an open internet is also cited by opponents to demonstrate why the government should stay out of internet regulation.

The Communications Act of 1934—passed over 80 years ago—was established in part to allow the government to regulate telecommunications. By defining a telephone service as a “common carrier,” it could receive federal protection from predatory corporations while being regulated by the FCC.

Yet plastering a framework created to address 20th century technology onto 21st century technology was bound to not be a perfect match.

Many aspects of the Communications Act of 1934 simply do not apply to modern forms of communication. The weight of the law puts an unfair and undue burden on ISPs. The costs required to abide by the law, net neutrality regulation opponents argue, are passed directly to consumers and reduce ISPs’ ability to expand their network and research newer, faster internet technologies.

The lack of innovation of the telephony system makes it hard to argue against this point. (Also, the Telecommunications Act did nothing to confront the AT&T monopoly—the real problem developing at the time—meaning it is not a panacea. It was not until decades later that the monopoly was properly addressed.) Costs and telephone technology in the homes of millions have remained relatively unchanged for decades. Government compliance (and lack of competition) left telephone companies no reason to innovate.

In areas of technology, the government, with its bureaucracy and red-tape, does not move fast enough to address the speed at which technology develops. Laws written too specifically become obsolete or inapplicable to the technology in a short amount of time. Legislation that is too generic cannot be applied effectively or will collapse in court cases and appeals.

History has demonstrated that when a government agency overregulates a commercial sector, the burden of maintaining those regulations inevitably becomes the focus of the business—not innovation.

A perfect modern example is the modern United States banking system. Talk to those operating any small or community bank—these banks are becoming more and more difficult to find—and you will hear about the burden of audits, compliance and adherence. Maintaining these burdens results in enormous costs that are difficult or impossible to maintain.

The result? Community banks are disappearing. Large banks are buying them out because only the large banks can afford the regulatory burden. Net neutrality regulation opponents fear this could happen with small businesses and organizations across the country.

I have been actively involved in the internet since its early days. From helping a small ISP get off the ground in the 1990s, to developing some of the internet’s first ecommerce sites, I can attest that the web has changed dramatically. The gophers and IRC services of previous decades bear little resemblance to the high speed, multimedia rich services available today. Never has something developed so fast, changed so many lives and reached every corner of the Earth.

Would that have happened with heavy government regulation? The answer is debatable. However, what is sure is that the solution to an open internet is even more complicated than the political football it has become.

Corporate Influence on Both Sides

The expression “follow the money” can be applied to the net neutrality debate with entities on both sides having much at stake.

On one side you have the big business ISPs who want to charge a premium to internet content providers, such as Microsoft, Google and Apple, to send their information over their systems. The providers on the other hand, whose coffers are also full, want to protect their bottom line and not be required to pay fees to distribute their content. Millions of consumers are stuck somewhere in the middle.

Both ISPs and content providers profess to have consumers’ best interests in mind. Both also have scores of millions of dollars hanging in the balance and at their disposal.

In the end the net neutrality debate comes down to the old argument of regulation versus deregulation. This philosophical debate which racked the telephone industry, is about as volatile as America’s current two-party system—with each side believing their way of thinking is correct and wondering how the other side does not see the “wisdom” in their thinking. In fact, the argument for and against net neutrality regulations does somewhat follow political party lines with Republicans seeking less regulation and Democrats more—as the Obama-Trump approaches prove.

Unless the two sides are willing to compromise and come together to create a balanced solution, the net neutrality issue will toggle back and forth with the changing of political parties.

Only time will tell if the debate over whether to keep the internet open in its current fashion, will be solved any time soon.

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