On June 11th, 2018, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), led by chairman Ajit Pai, repealed its previous rules protecting net neutrality, effectively ending regulation in the United States.
Two years later, the decision is still controversial among hacktivist circles, human rights organizations, computer science experts, and citizens alike – especially during a time where internet media is playing a crucial role in distributing information surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic.
Many critics have opposed the repeal of Obama-era net neutrality rules and regulations, citing freedom of information exchange, human rights in the digital age, and standardization of accessible information.
In my opinion, the importance of net neutrality can be explored in two central questions:
Communication is a fundamental human right. In the 21st century, this necessitates being connected to the wealth of knowledge and information on the free internet. Restrictive access to the internet through ISP (internet service provider) “bundling” leads to society consuming whatever ISPs decide to provide access to via a buy-in process from content creators. It's evident and self-explanatory that this leads to an intellectual and creative monopoly.
The repeal of net neutrality led to a nullification of rules that once regulated broadband service as a utility under Title II of the Communications Act. This meant that access to the Internet would be considered a common utility– like electricity – and would be subject to the broad power of the FCC. Following the repeal, practices like blocking, throttling, and paid prioritization would no longer be explicitly legally prohibited.
This essentially meant that free and open access to the Internet could now be infringed on by ISPs in order to profit. For example – dividing the Internet into “bundles” and selling them akin to television packages. To do this, ISPs used the argument that the Internet should be classified as an “information service”, and therefore not be regulated – as was provided in the FCC’s set of (now repealed) rules – like legacy phone companies/utilities.
But in the modern information age, it is inaccurate to not consider access to the digital sphere a necessary utility. Those on the Internet – nearly 4.5 billion people – have the capacity to exercise their freedom of expression as well as gather information and news from sources they prefer. In December 2003, the World Summit on the Information Society of the United Nations concluded that “everyone has the right to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers. Communication is a fundamental social process, a basic human need and the foundation of all social organization...Everyone, everywhere should have the opportunity to participate”.
And unfortunately, with the repeal of the Obama-era net neutrality rules, ISPs cannot be trusted to uphold this opportunity out of good faith. ISPs have incentive to create “packages” to sell as they would profit through buy-ins from companies/content creators as well as the monopoly they hold. But restricting parts of the Internet in order to create these television-like bundles creates a financial factor.
The average person, with an average income, is likely to default to the basic “package(s)” or premium. Therefore, a society with mostly average persons will lead to the masses consuming whatever content the ISP promotes. The content itself would be influenced by profit incentives of ISPs – for example, what content providers pay more for their content to be featured – and would thus lead to an intellectual monopoly. In addition, practices like the blocking of lawful content, the throttling of transmitted data in order to encourage content the ISP pushes, and the paid prioritization of companies who “bought in” with ISPs would lead to this same intellectual and creative monopoly that restricts open access.
Individuals would be deprived of access to the creativity and innovation of the Internet as they would singularly consume content that has been curated as a result of profit incentives. As a society, we would not have open access to diverse media (ex. media from smaller companies/organizations), communication with diverse people (ex. those with unconventional beliefs that are often not profitable to promote), and thus would have an inhibition of diverse thought.
The Internet has shaped the general thinking of society since its conception. From pop culture to politics, the wealth of online services, social media, news, and more on the Web has influenced the masses across the world in good ways and bad. A relevant example includes Russian interference in the U.S. election through Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. Many have concluded that the discord sowed led to the election of Donald Trump, creating a concrete link between the Internet and its influence on the billions of people that regularly access it. A more recent example includes how loopholes in Facebook's policy paves the way for climate deniers to reach a wide and impressionable audience.
If concrete net neutrality law is not passed soon, ISPs will hold tremendous power over society; the content ISPs promote will be the plurality of what the average person in America consumes. For example, if an ISP lets a consumer stream Fox News (or another hyper-partisan outlet) for free but not MSNBC, or vice versa, this could have a tangible impact on the media the average person consumes, their subsequent political opinions, and the candidates they vote for. We can see the dangers of this in 2020, as hyper-partisan outlets like Fox News routinely spread misinformation surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, sow distrust in public health officials, all while idolizing the sitting president seeking reelection.
Restricted access by ISPs also means an inhibition of innovation. In “Net Neutrality Has Officially Been Repealed. Here’s How That Could Affect You” by Keith Collins, Collins mentions that these “pay-to-play” deals – where getting on ISP’s “packages” requires a buy in – could lead to small Internet businesses who cannot afford the buy-in unfairly failing and subsequent monopolization by larger companies. In Chairman Pai's opinion piece “How the FCC Can Save the Open Internet”, Pai remarks that “innovators everywhere used the Internet’s open platform to start companies that have transformed how billions of people live and work”. But Collins demonstrates that net neutrality itself is what sustains this “even playing field” allowing small businesses to rise, and keeping monopolization at a minimum.
Comcast Corp. v. F.C.C., the 2010 case that held that the FCC lacked the power to enforce net neutrality among ISPs, and the more recent repeal of net neutrality regulations have led to a grim future for the Internet. For the sake of a free, unfettered, and diverse society, it is imperative that we sign strong net neutrality legislation into actual, tangible law. Doing so will restore power back to the individual – rather than the corporation – hold ISPs legally accountable, and will allow the Internet to, in Ajit Pai’s own words, remain the “greatest free-market success story in history”.