A Non-Neutral Call for Net Neutrality

Imagine a United States without net neutrality.

Verizon is your internet service provider, meaning Verizon is the company you pay to gain access to the millions of websites, articles, pictures, videos, and songs that can be found online. However, without net neutrality, the government not longer regulates the internet like a public utility, and Verizon is not obligated to connect you to every website at the same speed. It can coerce companies to pay fees to get their content to consumers at faster speeds. For example, Verizon might form a partnership with Netflix where Netflix pays Verizon more money for its site to load faster for Verizon customers - but this means other sites like Hulu load much slower for Verizon consumers. This could also mean that customers of other interns service providers (like Comcast or AT&T) would get slower access to Netflix, unless Netflix is willing to pay multiple partnership fees to all of the top internet service providers for unbridled access to its site. And, at the end of the day, these higher fees would translate into higher prices for consumers.

For people in countries without net neutrality, this is (close to) the reality of their online experiences. In Portugal, for example, the country’s main internet service provider, Meo, charges consumers more for usage of popular social media apps like Facebook and Messenger. Even though Portugal is a part of the European Union, its internet service providers have found enough loopholes in the EU’s digital regulations that they can essentially restrict access speeds from websites to consumers and charge both businesses and consumers more for the internet.

Under the United States’ current net neutrality rules, the internet is a free and open forum of exchange. Anybody — from individuals to small businesses to large corporations — can put content online for anybody else to find and see, and internet service providers aren’t allowed to vary the speed of access for certain consumers and certain content.

The concept behind net neutrality is actually not new in the United States regulatory framework. Since the 1980s, telecommunications networks (such as cell service networks) have been regulated as common carriers by the Federal Communications Commissions. This means cell networks are treated like public utilities and cannot “play favorites” with their customers, charging them less or granting them faster connection speeds compared to others.

When the internet became a household feature at the end of the 20th century, the concept of telecommunications networks as public utilities carried over to apply to the internet as well. Public officials like Al Gore spoke in favor of a regulated internet because an internet with preferential treatment by internet service providers if one that is conducive to competition in the digital arena, and, according to The Economist, competition is necessary for America’s economy. Without competition, less investments are made into new ideas, products, and startups, and innovation suffers as a result.

For the past several decades, Americans have enjoyed a free and neutral internet. Through the FCC, the government has ensured that no one is charged more or less for access to certain websites. Now, however, internet service providers, who have never been on the side of net neutrality, are lobbying the FCC to get rid of the net neutrality rules that have protected Americans’ internet freedom for decades in an attempt to raise their own bottom lines through charging customers and businesses more for workable internet speeds. The FCC, under Chairman Ajit Pai, who has given every indication that he will bend to the internet service providers’ lobbying and demands, is set to vote on net neutrality reform on December 14th.

Without net neutrality, the internet will no longer be regulated by the government. Internet service providers will be able to charge more and provide preferential treatment. Innovation, incubation, and access to ideas will be crippled. While life will not change drastically,  the internet will change just enough to be inconvenient to some and unaffordable for others. For the sake of fair and open competition among consumers and businesses of every size, it would really be better if net neutrality was preserved.