Today, tech companies and websites like Twitter and Netflix are joining forces with politicians and other organizations to protest in favor of net neutrality in a “Day of Action.” This is in response to movements by the Federal Communications Commission to revoke regulations that promote net neutrality by essentially allowing internet service providers, or ISPs, the ability to block or alter the speed of certain internet content.
How did we get here? And why is it important?
In statement released on Nov. 10, 2014, Barack Obama said that he would ask the FCC to institute regulations preventing blocking, paid prioritization, and throttling, the slowing down or speeding up of content based on your service provider. The statement also called for full transparency from the FCC, to make sure other points of connection would not be experiencing prioritization either.
In a video, Obama argued that internet service should be treated as a free and open space, recommending that the FCC reclassify internet service as common carriers under Title II of the Communications Act of 1934. That stance was met with opposition from Republicans and major ISPs. That same day the statement was released, Ted Cruz would take to Twitter to call net neutrality “Obamacare for the internet.” When asked about his thoughts on net neutrality, Comcast CEO Brian Roberts suggested more government regulation was unnecessary, saying “the idea that we’re not going to have an open internet is just not realistic.”
Under former FCC chairman Tom Wheeler, on Feb. 26, 2015, in a 3-2 vote, the FCC followed Obama’s recommendations and adopted regulations to promote net neutrality. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit upheld the net neutrality regulations against a petition filed by AT&T and several other internet service companies. Their decision can be read here.
Trump-appointed FCC Chairman Ajit Pai is now considering reversing Obama-era net neutrality regulations. On its website, the FCC states that it wants to “rollback heavy-handed internet regulation strives.” This means rolling back Obama’s prohibitions on paid prioritizing and blocking, allowing internet providers to choose which content gets more speed.
Tech companies are making public moves to prevent these rollbacks. On Netflix, a message appears at the top directing users to a website to learn more about why net neutrality is being threatened. On Twitter, a promoted hashtag #netneutrality is being used by members to share their positions on the issue.
The issue of net neutrality is an important one for many reasons. But first and foremost, it is an issue of class. A less neutral internet leaves too much power to companies who might be inclined to charge more for faster access. And those who can’t pay up for fast internet access may be discouraged from creating and accessing content.
Twitter and Netflix can afford to pay more to keep their websites fast and accessible. Smaller companies and individual people can’t.
The internet is already not free. Unless you walk to your local library everyday to use a computer, you already pay for use of the internet. Making more internet plans and changing the speeds of certain content only adds more barriers to making the internet a more open and accessible place to share ideas. This unfairly discriminates against poorer communities who can’t necessarily pay more for faster internet access. It’s one thing to ask that people pay for access to certain television networks packages or phone plans (though we might have to consider those industries more carefully, too). It’s an entirely different thing that people pay additional to timely access or provide ideas, services, and content on the internet. The internet has become too integral to the sharing of ideas, to our survival.
As a college student, I am tied to the internet. Not just for my entertainment, but for my homework, for my online subscription to several news sites, and for keeping up to date on progressive movements and actions. If I had to pay more for faster access to certain websites, I don’t think I could. If I had to pay more for a blog I ran to be accessible in a timely manner to readers, I couldn’t. And that would severely limit the way I interacted with the internet.
One doesn’t have to be like me to appreciate why the need for net neutrality is important. If you believe that you should have the freedom to access the internet in the same way as pretty much anyone else in any socio-economic class does, then you believe in net neutrality.
The ACLU recognizes the impact this possible rollback will have on class. The ACLU has a petition that people can sign to stand up for net neutrality. A statement preceding the petition writes “Any proposal that undermines net neutrality violates our freedoms of speech, expression, and inquiry and risks unfair discrimination against low-income communities and communities of color.”
There is no guarantee that the removal of these regulations would result in blocking, paid prioritization, or throttling. However, these net neutrality rules need to stay in place to make sure these practices never become a part of how internet access is distributed.