Net Neutrality

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I know we’ve talked about this before but here’s a paper written as objectively as one can on the issue.

Net Neutrality: What is it and why should you care?

Recently Net Neutrality has been brought to light.  It is not a new concept and in fact it is an issue that has been around as long as companies as have been pushing ones and zeros into people’s homes.  This subject is something that many people have of heard of but few actually know what it is about and even less know how or even it that it has an effect on their daily lives.  Net Neutrality is at the forefront of how our post-industrial society functions.  We rely on the distribution of information and the infrastructure upon which it is sent to go about our daily lives.
Net Neutrality is the principle that Internet service providers (ISPs) should enable access to all content and applications regardless of the source, and without favoring or blocking particular products or websites (Read,50). In other words it is the essence of how digital information is sent out.  Currently all information is treated equally.  Every piece of data is treated exactly the same no matter the origin or destination.  However; there has recently been a push by telecommunication companies to change that.  In their plans they would create a “fast lane” for some information to travel down for a premium price.  This fundamentally would state that not all data is equal, which, in the technology industry, would be a huge paradigm shift.

Currently all web traffic is treated equally.  That gives everyone on the internet and even playing field, from an adolescent’s blog that she writes in her basement all the way up to major players such as Facebook and Google.  When an internet service provider receives a request to go to a certain web page there is no distinction as to which site may be more important than any other.  This is one of the reasons that Facebook was able to push Myspace out of the top spot as a social network.  In this model a startup company has just as much chance at success as a firmly established business and therefore this environment helps to foster innovation.  Cable companies are also in the process of trying to change the way web traffic is moved around.  “If companies like AT&T and Verizon have their way, there will be two tiers of internet service: fast and expensive and slow and cheap (or cheaper). We unwealthy users – students, scholars, universities, and small publishers – wouldn’t be forced offline, just forced into the slow lane.  Because the fast lane would reserve a chunk of bandwidth for the wealthy” (Bailey).  That is a startup business, just about any small business for that matter, would not be able to afford the same internet service that major companies are able to.
Along those lines of equality, Net Neutrality also helps promote the freedom of speech.  As it currently stands, for better or worse, every voice has the same chance to be heard.  “Barring ISPs from treating websites differently would guarantee free speech to website owners that supply content to users.”  (Clemmitt, 332)  Every little blog, no matter how outlandish the subject matter may be, has the same routing priority as a site like CNN.com. This in its principle is the freedom of speech.  If ISPs are allowed to prioritize traffic they are fundamentally dictating that the voices with the deepest pockets will get heard the loudest.
There are also economic benefits to Net Neutrality.  As stated previously the current format of internet usage can help promote small businesses.  Once a small business starts to grow it creates new jobs.  The argument has been made that if someone does not like the way an ISP is treating their traffic they should move to a competitor, and then let the market decide what is right.  The problem is that many people have and little to no choice in regards to which provider they can attain their internet access from. “Network-neutrality rules are necessary to protect against the monopoly and duopoly behavior of broadband Internet access providers in our country.  Contrary to the assertions by industry incumbents that customers enjoy competition when it comes to broadband access choice and can simply switch, the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC’s) National Broadband plan reported that 13 percent of Americans have only one broadband access provider, and that 78 percent of Americans have only two broadband Internet access providers.” (Clemmitt, 341).  Those are astonishing numbers when you are talking about how the world now interacts.  That is the equivalent to have having only one gas station in a city.  This gas station could sell gas in two tiers; the fast lane that allowed people to fill up and go, and a slow lane where people would pay less but need to wait in line to get their gas.  Due to this slower lane, some cars may even run out of gas before they got to the pump.  As would some companies fail as they are not able to afford the Internet fast lane to deliver their content.
Here in the United States we are just beginning to look at this type of legislation, but the European Union (EU) is already taking steps to move things in this direction.  They have not taken the full stance of a completely open and neutral Internet but they are heading in that direction.  There is currently a commission monitoring how policies are being implemented across the union. “The Commission believes that contained within the regulatory regime are powers which can be used by the various National Regulator Authorities (NRAs) to protect a neutral Internet.” (Read, 58)    Essentially they have given power to the local jurisdictions to on how to handle their Net Neutrality cases.
Of course there are opposing arguments against any legislation for Net Neutrality.  There is the belief that “it is a relic from the age of academic Internet which his holding back new money making revenues and innovation at the access level” (Read, 50).  The money making revenues here are aimed solely at the major telecommunications providers.  Without Net Neutrality these companies would be able to charge a premium fee in order for certain content to arrive at the end user faster.  For example, in early 2014 Netflix was in negotiations with Comcast regarding how its content would be delivered. “In January, the average speed for Comcast subscribers fell to 1.51 megabytes per second, down from 1.63 in December.”(Ciaccia).  This essentially gave leverage to Comcast in these discussions.  The reason being is that the end user would not see this as an issue of content not being delivered to them properly but instead as “Netflix isn’t working.”
Perhaps the biggest reason major telecommunications companies are against the idea of Net Neutrality is that they own the lines.  They put forth the investment into the infrastructure and so they should have the right to do with them as they please.  The Fifth Amendment states that a person shall not have the property taken away for public use without just compensation.  “Cable and phone company ISPs own the wires and cables that bring Internet data into individual homes and businesses and because of that, the taking clause may apply to Internet regulations” (Clemmitt, 333).  The price tag associated with purchasing the entirety of our broadband network would be completely immeasurable.
Another portion of the argument against Net Neutrality is how ISPs are to hold customers accountable for illegal activities on their networks.  Allowing a completely free and open Internet could open them up to a lawsuit.  “The ideal copyright enforcement mechanism would be for content owners to sue direct infringers.  But often, direct infringers are too ubiquitous, too small, and too difficult to find.  The result is well-developed notions of secondary liability for copyright infringement that involve intermediaries”(Szoka, 382).  Simply put, it can possibly put the content providers in the crosshairs for copyright infringement.  While the chances of this happening a relatively slim, the consequences of a record label filing a lawsuit against a major ISP could be catastrophic.
With all the discussions on Net Neutrality some people fear the possibility of the abuse of power by the US government.  On November 10th 2014 Representative Steve Scalise issued a press release that stated “Title II reclassification would have a chilling effect on the Internet, which is a sector of our economy that has thrived under the current light-touch regulatory model, and sends the wrong message that regulation trumps innovation in the Internet ecosystem. 1930’s-era utility regulations have no business being applied to a 21st century Internet. The best way to guarantee a vibrant Internet economy is by keeping the federal government out of the way, not getting it more involved. The FCC should not allow itself to be bullied into embracing this dangerous proposal that will harm our economy.”(Scalise)  He feels that the government should make no regulation either way regarding Net Neutrality and that the proposal to have telecommunications companies classified as utilities put forth by President Obama would harm the telecommunication industry.
Net Neutrality is, as most controversial topics, highly important.  Both sides bring forth strong arguments.  Both sides argue that their side brings innovation.  Those for it argue that with a level playing field more people can bring their ideas to the table.  While those against it state that the rules simply get in the way.  Each maintains that their views will help spur economics, either by helping small business flourish or letting the larger businesses get larger. The fear of abuse runs on each side as well. Those arguing for Net Neutrality may wish to note that some providers are already headed down that path. “I downloaded the same content twice from (the same) connections, but the second time the content was encrypted.  The first time the speed was reduced to almost minimum, but the second the connection remained high.  I can only conclude that my provider uses some kind of packet inspection to regulate my use” (Malcolm, 57) On the opposite side however ISPs would argue that if the government were to label them as a utility that the internet as we know it would cease to exist. (Scalise).  In the end the best that can be done is to stay informed and ensure that the government does what is best for the people it serves.
Works Cited

Bailey, Charles W., Jr. “Strong copyright + DRM + weak net neutrality = digital dystopia?” Information Technology and Libraries Sept. 2006: 116+. Computer Database. Web. 13 Nov. 2014.

Ciaccia, Chris. “Did Comcast Just Murder Net Neutrality by Charging Netflix for Smooth Streaming?” BGR. N.p., 24 Feb. 2014. Web. 20 Nov. 2014.

Clemmitt, Marcia. “Internet Regulation.” CQ Researcher 13 Apr. 2012: 325-48. Web. 13 Nov. 2014.

Malcolm, Jeremy M. Holding Broadband Providers to Account: A Consumer Advocacy Manual. S.l.: Consumers International, 2012. Print.

McMillan, Robert. “The Simple Question Nobody’s Asking About Net Neutrality | WIRED.” Wired.com. Conde Nast Digital, 12 Nov. 0014. Web. 24 Nov. 2014.

Read, Darren. “Net Neutrality And The EU Electronic Communications Regulatory Framework.” International Journal Of Law & Information Technology 20.1 (2012): 48-72. Applied Science & Technology Source. Web. 13 Nov. 2014

“Scalise Statement on Administration’s Desire to Regulate the Internet.” Majority Whip Steve Scalise. N.p., 10 Nov. 2014. Web. 24 Nov. 2014.

Szoka, Berin, Adam Marcus, Jonathan Zittrain, Yochai Benkler, and John G. Palfrey. The next Digital Decade: Essays on the Future of the Internet. Washington D.C.: TechFreedom, 2010. Print.

 

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