The internet has assumed a central role in today's world, facilitating the global spread of knowledge, entertainment, and commerce. In many ways, the internet is the epitome of the free market: the cost of entry is little to nothing, and any Internet user—provided their connection isn't censored by their government or institution—can navigate to whatever online destination they choose.
This freedom of navigation is fundamental to the internet’s—and in the modern world, society’s—well-being. Net neutrality is the protection of these rights, dictating that internet service providers (ISPs)—the companies which connect your home to the internet—cannot block or slow down your connection to some sites and give preference to others. Net neutrality protects a level playing field for all internet users and publishers by requiring ISPs to treat all internet traffic without preference. Unfortunately, these protections are under attack by the telecommunications lobby and, of course, Donald Trump.
Net neutrality became law in the United States in 2015 when the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) classified broadband as a common carrier under Title II of the Communications Act of 1934. A common carrier is a company that is required to transport all people, property, or information provided that there is space—whether on the train, the phone wire, or the ship—and that the fee is paid. If a common carrier refuses to transport a parcel or communication without reasonable justification, it may be sued for damages. Title II of the Communications Act mandated that ISPs must treat all internet traffic—whether to a competitor's website, a controversial blog, or a data-heavy streaming service—equally.Net neutrality ensures that publishers—whether The Intercept, ProgTimes, or Breitbart—are able to publish and be read online freely. Indeed, net neutrality laws are central to digital liberty and free speech: in their absence, nothing stands to prevent ISPs from censoring, blocking, or arbitrarily slowing down certain sites.
Unfortunately, these protections have recently come under attack: FCC chairman and Trump-appointee Ajit Pai has pushed to repeal the classification of broadband as a public utility, effectively nullifying the Obama-era net neutrality laws.
In a speech at the Newseum in Washington, Mr. Pai said that net neutrality laws hurt competition. "Two years ago, I warned that we were making a serious mistake," said Mr. Pai. “It’s basic economics. The more heavily you regulate something, the less of it you’re likely to get.”
Mr. Pai's statement is fundamentally flawed, however: when consumers have no choice among broadband providers—as is the case for most of Americans—proper regulation is necessary. Under late capitalism, monopolies, like those held largely by National Grid for electricity and Comcast for broadband, are unavoidable (the costs to build competing infrastructure are too great), and regulation is necessary to keep monopolies from exploiting their customers.
The regulation of public utilities has long been an important part of United States legislation. The public utility monopolies—mainly water, electricity, and broadband—are not subject to the same checks of capitalism and free markets that apply to other industries, as their customers don’t have the freedom to change providers. Therefore, it is crucial that they are properly regulated to protect consumers. The FCC's Title II classification is the telecommunications version of this legislation.
Few Americans stand to benefit from removing net neutrality laws—indeed, the only parties who would gain from these changes are the telecommunication companies themselves. Without net neutrality laws, ISPs are free to charge their customers extra for access to certain sites—transforming the internet into a cable-like channel subscription service—and to charge websites for "fast lanes" into their customer’s homes.
A large number of lobbyists are fighting both for and against the 2015 Title II classification. Advocating in favor net neutrality is the Internet Association, an advocacy conglomerate comprised of more than thirty companies including Google, Facebook, and Netflix. The Internet Association meets with members of congress, runs social media campaigns, and conducts various educational initiatives in hopes of securing net neutrality. The Internet Association, despite its large corporate membership, does not directly act in order to increase its member’s profits. Instead, it hopes that by protecting net neutrality, it will support the growth of the internet and its member companies—which are largely California-based tech companies—will prosper by proxy.
AT&T, Comcast, and Verizon, however, formed a lobby to act against the Title II classification. In an effort to gauge the opinion of the American public on net neutrality, the FCC began accepting comments on the issue on May 23, 2017. As it turned out, 97% of the 700,000 non-spam comments on the FCC's website supported Obama's net neutrality rules—indeed, the American public has come out overwhelmingly in favor of net neutrality. As a result, the telecommunication lobby engages almost solely with politicians: a grassroots effort, like that of the Internet Association, would be impossible—the American public can not be persuaded to turn against the internet they know and love.
Even without the support of the American public, however, the attack on net neutrality may very well be successful. Donald Trump has shown that he has little regard for the wellbeing of the American public, and the Republican-controlled congress is unlikely to stand up to both Trump and the powerful telecommunications companies which often pay their salaries.
With your help, net neutrality may remain: by joining the thousands of Americans who signed the petition and phoned their representatives, you too can make the difference between a free or closed internet.
This text is licensed CC BY 4.0. This text was also published on ProgTimes, but was written by the WorthHiding staff.