Net neutrality is anything but neutral. In October 2017, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), led by chairman Ajit Pai, voted to repeal the Open Internet Order that was reinstated in 2015. The legislation has spawned public debate and divided the opinions of everyone from Internet companies and cable conglomerates to innovators and freedom of speech activists.
The debate surrounding Net Neutrality — a term coined by Columbia University’s Media and Law professor, Tim Wu, in 2003 — centers around whether Broadband Internet should be classified under Title I Information Service or as its current Title II Communications Service classification. The main supporters of maintaining a Title II legislation are major Internet companies including Google, Facebook, Netflix, Amazon and eBay. The opponents comprise the carriers and major ISP companies like Comcast, AT&T and Verizon.
The debate has led to serious contention between both supporters and detractors of net neutrality, especially in regards to how innovation and competition may be impacted due to these regulations.
In recent weeks, a vote over the net neutrality bill entitled Save The Internet Act which would restore Obama-era FCC Internet regulations has been blocked in the Senate by Majority leader Mitch McConnell. However, lawmakers and the FTC are jumping in with the hopes of regulating the tech giants. The New York Times reports that antitrust oversights are being considered against companies like Apple, Google, Facebook and Amazon as they look into possible anti-competitive behavior from the tech giants which could lead to an overhaul of antitrust rules in decades. The lawmakers pushing this legislation believe that competition will expand as major companies won’t be able to enforce unfair rules or fees against their competition which remains a point of contention between Apple and Spotify, for example.
There are both positive and negative aspects to each ruling, but neither are entirely satisfactory to meet the needs of a free, open and a more innovative marketplace. Perhaps, an alternative to these two approaches should be considered.
The Pros and Cons of Title II
If classified remains as Title 2 Communications Services, carriers and ISPs are treated like utility services which are subject to heavy regulation and transparency requirements. Under this ruling, carriers/ISPs must adhere to these rules:
- The ruling ensures that all carriers/ISPs treat data on the internet equally, meaning there are no barriers to access content. Anything from Wikipedia pages and political manifestos to personal email and videos are all accessible for whomever searches these materials.
- They can’t block, throttle or pay for prioritization. For example, NBC or Google cannot pay more money to Comcast to have their content streamed faster.
- ISPs must report proof of their fair practices regularly to the FCC.
For over two decades, the Internet has been open. As we see today, it’s benefited humans across the world. It has spawned trillion dollar industries and revolutionized all aspects of our like from shopping to entertainment and education. I’m sure none of us can imagine a world without Netflix, Amazon, or Google and the devices like smartphones we use to access these sites.
What are the cons? Heavy regulatory requirements against carriers or ISPs mean innovation is stifled within carrier companies. With providers already monopolies, the motivation to innovate and provide improved connectivity has diminished. The barrier to entry for entrepreneurs is traditionally high while more than 75 million Americans still don’t have access to broadband and are on the slow side of the digital divide. These obstacles defeat the basic premise of the Internet’s value, but it has become an arsenal for politicians.
The Pros and Cons of Title I
What has happened since Net Neutrality was fully repealed? Classified as a Title 1 Information service, the regulatory requirements get lifted. This means:
- ISPs have more control over what you watch. For example, they have authority to block full access to sites like Netflix or Reddit.
- They could potentially block or throttle specific websites or start paid prioritization. They could also charge Netflix or Google users more for their content and better connectivity.
- Transparent reporting are eliminated under this act. As a result, carriers have free reign to block and slow website traffic as long as they report their practices if and when they are asked to justify.
Obviously, there’s a lot of freedom that’s lost with these rules. Repealing the Open Internet Order, subject to less or no regulation, continues to be blocked for vote in the Senate. On the positive side, there is hope of spurring more competition amongst the carriers and broadband providers, which in turn should bring better connectivity and Internet access to everyone; this is the true principles of upholding an Open Internet!
Seal the Deal or Keep the Repeal?
When the Open Internet Order was first instituted about 15 years ago, broadband had just started and monopolies didn’t exist in the Internet industry. Everything is different now. As we have seen, even the internet companies, if not already, are becoming monopolies and entry barriers for entrepreneurs are high.
If we want to foster innovation but also provide users with free and fair access to the Internet without pay barriers, we must consider an alternative option: one that encompasses the very best of each side. While I don’t have the full-blown solution to our needs; we must consider three central points of contention:
- Which monopolistic group would you rather favor? Is it the carriers/ISPs or the Internet Companies like Google?
- How will voting for or against this ruling impact the underlying issue of “Free Market” and “Free Speech”?
- Will this really bring internet to 75+ million Americans who are on the wrong side of the digital divide?
For a fully realized, Open Internet we must continuously consider these questions while asking how we can help companies and leaders innovate and while allowing people that use the Internet to thrive. If only Congress can protect an open internet, we must first ask for better alternative legislation from our politicians.
As noted by law professor David Kaye in his book “Speech Police: The Global Struggle to Govern the Internet”, politicians and leaders have to work together to reaffirm the need for free speech, but in a manner that protects basic human rights.
Ben Thompson reiterates in his Stratechery blog that Congress might want to consider passing a law that bans ISPs from blocking content, but it might be wise for us to continue a “wait-and-see” approach when it comes to paid prioritization so that growing startups may thrive while Americans enjoy the expansive delights of an even more competitive and open Internet.