The Internet has become more than just a useful tool in America today — it has become an integral experience of daily life. In fact, Internet usage in America has been rapidly increasing since the year 2000 and now encompasses 87 percent of American adults, spanning income groups, education levels, race and age. With this astounding reach, it is crucial to safeguard everyone’s equal access to the knowledge and connectivity of the Web so that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) cannot discriminate the speed of service among users.
The sheer vastness makes it seem uncontrollable, but debates about the regulation of the Internet are now everywhere. The question of Internet control has even reached the government — just this past Monday, President Obama made a statement promoting net neutrality by urging the Federal Communications Commission to assure that Internet access will not discriminate against any user, content, site or platform.
As an independent agency, the FCC is not beholden to Obama’s words. However, there is a large contingent of support behind Obama’s message; in the last six months, almost four million people have sent comments to the FCC, mostly advocating for strong regulation. Emerging tech startups are also some of net neutrality’s most vocal proponents, with a huge investment in having the same speed of Internet access as large companies. That said, large and successful corporations such as Netflix, Etsy, Kickstarter, Vimeo, Ford, UPS and even Visa are also pushing the FCC for stronger regulation of Internet providers. Even Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web itself, is a strong proponent that his creation should remain free and open.
It is clear from this broad consensus that we need more oversight to ensure that Internet access is equal for everyone. Even now, with such widespread support for net neutrality, why is there still a debate? Who would oppose a “free and open Internet” or the principle that “an entrepreneur’s fledgling company should have the same chance to succeed as established corporations?”
Unsurprisingly, it is the out-of-control, monopolistic ISPs that form the biggest opposition. But equal access to the Internet cannot be sacrificed simply for more ISP profits. Under net neutrality, ISPs such as Comcast and Verizon will no longer be able to block or deliberately slow any legal Internet content anymore based on an individual’s or business’s ability to pay for theoretical “fast-lane” content.
Other opponents of net neutrality rest their claims on unfounded and insignificant theories. Aside from ISPs that simply want monopolistic price control of providing Internet access, others argue that more regulation would limit investment in the infrastructure and new services. This is entirely contradictory to the reality of what could happen. With unrestricted control of the market, ISPs would be incentivized to “restrict the best access or to pick winners and losers in the online marketplace for services and ideas,” effectively controlling the fate of Internet content and online companies.
Essentially, the debate over net neutrality is a debate over whether Internet access is intrinsically a telecommunication service or an information service. Since the mid-’90s, broadband service has been classified as simply an information service, leaving it exempt from most of the FCCs regulations. However, the Internet today is clearly much more than that. We are all undoubtedly dependent on the Internet in more aspects in our life than ever before, which means there needs to be protections in place to make sure everyone has guaranteed access. In fact, in 2011, the UN even declared Internet access as a human right.
Under Title II of the Communications Act, services like phone and radio are considered basic utilities, and as such are subject to more FCC regulations to ensure everyone has equal access. As the most accessible and crucial source of information, knowledge and communication today, the Internet is clearly more a standard utility than just another trivial service. Discrimination is no longer allowed in public education today, so why should it be allowed in the public’s access to the wealth of information on the Internet? In our constantly advancing, technology-centered society, it is time for the Internet held to the same standards as the phone and radio.
The question we must all ask ourselves is whether we want to regulate the Internet Service Providers or whether we want them to regulate us. We cannot have it both ways — if the FCC keeps its hands completely out of the ISPs’ business, then it is only a matter of time before they begin to prioritize companies that can pay the most and leave other startups and smaller companies resigned to the “slow lane.”
Obama’s call to action could not have occurred at a more critical time. Equal rights and opportunities don’t end at our schools or our jobs. We must constantly adapt our definition of equality to our evolving and innovating society. That means that in a society so reliant on the Internet today, we all deserve the right to equal access to the education and knowledge that lies right at our fingertips.
Contact Aimee Trujillo at aimeet ‘at’ stanford.edu.
Last Monday, President Obama entered the debate about net neutrality — the idea that, apart from trying to block spam or congestion, Internet Service Providers (ISPs) should treat all information they process equally. Despite the FCC (run by former telecom lobbyist Tom Wheeler) moving towards net non-neutrality, Obama wants the agency to start treating ISPs (e.g. Comcast) like they do telephone companies: as telecommunications services instead of information services. But, even between Obama urging him to change his ways and John Oliver causing his agency’s site to crash over the issue, Wheeler seems ready for a siege.
Net neutrality is an important topic for our Internet-age society. After all, it has proved important to the development of the Internet as we know it. But trying to regulate it any more aggressively than we have in the past, like through reclassifying ISPs, isn’t the answer. It’s a temporary fix to a long-term problem created by the Ma Bell-inspired, monopolistic culture of telecommunication companies. So rather than over-regulating in a way that assumes the ISP monopoly as a given, a better tactic would be encouraging as much competition as possible to collapse that monopoly.
Arguments supporting over-regulation for neutrality tend to forget or ignore that the Internet of today differs fundamentally from the Internet of 2003, when Tim Wu first coined the term “net neutrality.” Many proponents of excessive neutrality regulation want to prevent ISPs from creating expensive “fast lanes” and cheap “slow lanes” on the Internet, assuming that all Internet data currently follow the same “lane” as in the past. By their logic, having “fast lanes” available only to those who can pay extra (i.e. larger companies like Google or Netflix) would kill competitors to YouTube’s or Netflix’s streaming services.
In reality, “fast lanes” already exist on the Internet, and they seem to cause no major harm to the market. Through peering and content-delivery networks (CDNs) pioneered by Google, many of the 30 companies whose services now take up half of the Internet’s overall traffic have managed to secure faster connections to the ISPs than other companies.
However, those methods haven’t destroyed the concept of net neutrality at all. Rather than fast lanes like over-regulation advocates warn about, they act more like lanes dedicated to extra wide loads. They are less about big companies getting special treatment and more about big companies getting their data out of the way of smaller ones — which could potentially help the proliferation of such smaller startups.
But things differ greatly on the ISPs’ side of the process, where competition has become stifled. It’s perhaps unsurprising (given that ISPs AT&T and Verizon descend from Ma Bell) that we have a de facto Ma Broadband. A culture of monopoly dominates our country’s ISPs — and above all else, that culture is the problem.
An oligarchic handful of ISPs hold an incredible amount of power over the entire market. Currently, the top five Internet companies control 86 percent of the market, and Comcast could soon become the dominant ISP in a majority of states if it merges with Time Warner. Additionally, nearly two-thirds of U.S. people have little to no choice in what company to get their Internet from thanks to the ISPs’ gentlemen’s agreement not to compete in certain areas. In other words, the free market between ISPs has all but died at their hands.
So instead of focusing solely on regulating for net neutrality, we need to focus more so on ways to encourage competition in the market and dissolve Ma Broadband.
Obama wants to use the easiest — and most dangerous — way to attempt that dissolution in reclassifying ISPs. Part of that reclassification would give the FCC the authority to mandate the sharing of physical Internet infrastructure as a way to force open the market. Without having to invest as much capital or time to build up a network, new companies could sprout up to challenge the Goliaths of the Ma Broadband ISPs. While some advocate for that “nuclear option” as the only one that will work, it really should be used only as a last resort; after all, trying to regulate the fast-paced world of the Internet using rules from 1934 would likely slow the process of innovation and cause further problems. Even trust-busting the ISPs, which should be done in a preventative sense with Comcast and Time Warner, would be a less-drastic option than reclassification.
Besides, others are still available to us. Specifically, rather than over-regulating current ISPs, we can instead do everything possible short of drastic regulation to encourage the growth of new ones, whether Google Fiber or otherwise. So far, Google Fiber’s efforts have focused on small-to-medium-sized areas where the cost of implementation fell below a prohibitive threshold; but, how low could that threshold itself fall if building new ISP infrastructure could, for instance, entitle companies to a tax break? Wherever we find barriers to the development and growth of such new companies, whether with taxes or burdensome regulations, we should lower them as much as possible. Such a process could even encourage the Ma Broadband companies to trade scratched backs for stabbed ones and start directly competing with one another in more markets.
The debate about the future of our country’s Internet needs to move forward, and it needs to move towards a freer Internet marketplace.
Contact Johnathan Bowes at jbowes ‘at’ stanford.edu.