The Way Forward for Net Neutrality in the United States

Net neutrality has recently been thrown around in all kinds of conversations, but background knowledge on the topic remains difficult to pin down. The term net neutrality is easy to use without completely understanding its general meaning or knowing about the full technical implications. It ultimately argues that Internet service providers (ISP) have to treat all Internet traffic the same, regardless of source or content, with exceptions made for technical reasons. ISPs are service organizations that provide access and use of the Internet, such as the American mass media company known as Comcast. Net neutrality was a natural continuation in the modern age of regulating common carriers for flat landlines companies; that regulation required all lawful nondiscriminatory traffic to be carried (no phone calls could be blocked). When referring to the content of the Internet, it means that there is no blocking or prioritization of certain websites or applications, nor can the speed of Internet access be affected. This means that a consumer does not pay more for quicker Internet delivery nor gets slower service if a consumer pays less.

America has always been a country with freedom of speech, and net neutrality was especially crucial for communities of minorities such as communities of color and the LGBTQ community, and as well as activists. Without net neutrality, these people could lose their voice online, because providers can stifle anything they have to say and can give the government’s or major internet corporations’ ideals an edge over those of governmental enemies’, small websites’, or the aforementioned communities’.

Net neutrality was more of a principle than a fixed rule in the US until 2015, when home broadband was reclassified with regulations. The FCC’s initial vote to put net neutrality into regulation in 2015 was due to a response to popular pressure as then FCC chairman Tom Wheeler announced that “nearly 4 million Americans overwhelmingly spoke up in favor of preserving a free and open internet.” Yet, on the 14th December, 2017, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which regulates all communications technology in the US, voted to repeal the 2015 net neutrality law. Their vote overturned the net neutrality law that regulated the Internet so much to prevent major carrier companies from interfering with consumer use. This has reignited the former conversation of how regulation should be carried out, highlighting the continuing dilemma between regulation and innovation.

The 2017 vote to deregulate seems to have led the FCC to de-prioritize regulating broadband as a common carrier, because ISPs had often complained that they were restricted by all the net neutrality regulations, restricted from expanding and upgrading their networks as much as they possibly could. No one knows how much this will affect consumers. There will definitely be a form of pay for play fast lanes which will benefit Internet corporations like Netflix and Google, which will harm small business and startups. However, ISPs know that too much profit from the lack of net neutrality will likely lead to stricter regulations than before, so the extent of their actions is still unknown.

Although the extent of the actions is unknown, FCC commissioners who voted for the repeal of net neutrality have reminded people what the purpose of the law was. The codification of net neutrality was to create more competition in the broadband market, and because that didn’t work, the law should be reworked. The idea of equal providing of services is still important, but the law that was in place since 2015 isn’t necessarily the best one for creating competition, the original goal. The three FCC commissioners who voted for the repeal of the law have sound reasoning to believe that any net neutrality law should be less restrictive than that of 2015. They believe in the protection of pay for play fast lanes and the ability of companies to charge for faster mobile data, which would create more competition and expand the market and innovation in a different way, as the current one was clearly not working.

It’s vital to note that their conclusions depend on their economic observations from 2015-2016 which only provided one data point to show a reduction in capital expenditure of these companies, which could suggest that there is not enough data to prove that it was due to the 2015 net neutrality law. It seems to me that while there is some element of truth in the FCC’s reasoning, repealing the net neutrality law was not necessary (there could have just been adjustments made).

Net neutrality was a goal of getting full broadband internet access to all. As time passed, it became seen as a fundamental right; however, how it is imposed should constantly be changing as the technology and expansion of broadband evolves with time, especially as companies’ private interests get involved. Overall, judgments aside,  it seems as if broadband expansion is more likely to come from a private sector approach rather than a public utility approach.