Since made available for public use, the internet’s freedoms and openness have been the subject of much debate. The idea that the internet should remain free and open to all is called Net Neutrality. This principle has been the backbone of the internet since its creation. Now it is under review by a new, more conservative, and business-friendly administration. These debates bring with them fundamental questions about how the internet should be used – questions that need to be answered, now.
The term, “Net Neutrality,” was coined by Tim Wu, a Columbia Law School professor, in his 2003 essay on the topic. According to Wu, the best way to explain Net Neutrality is that “a public information network will end up being most useful if all content, websites, and platforms are treated equally.” The internet began as a loosely organized network of scientists, so Internet Service Providers (ISPs) did not exist, let alone require regulation. The Internet was eventually opened up to the public in 1992, and it grew steadily from there. One year later, the Internet facilitated 1% of worldwide telecommunications, by 2000, 51%, and by 2007, 97%.
The growth of the internet corresponds directly to the emergence of throttling: the illegal and intentional slowing or speeding up of an Internet service generally used to promote or partially block a website. For example, in 2004, the Madison River Communications Company was fined $15,000 by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for restricting its customers access to a competing cell service, Vonage. This was the first time throttling was used on such a scale that helped strengthen the sentiment that Net Neutrality is necessary for an effective and fair internet.
Net Neutrality remained unchallenged in the judicial system until 2015, when the United States Telecom Association, a trade organization, filed suit against the FCC over their new “open internet rules”, a set of guidelines adopted which banned blocking, throttling, and paid prioritization of Internet traffic. The D.C. Circuit Court ruled that broadband is protected under the Communications Act of 1934, this meant that ISPs could not unjustly discriminate against content they dislike or content that could potentially harm their business.
If Net Neutrality is not upheld by the FCC, anyone who uses the internet will be affected greatly. Currently, the FCC holds ISPs to a certain standard of transparency. Without Net Neutrality, however, the FCC will not be able to regulate any ISPs. The task would fall to the Federal Trade Commission, a group that regulates trade – not public utilities like the internet. This would allow any ISP to change their policies without notifying their customers. Secondly, nothing would stop an ISP from banning any content they dislike. Third, ISPs would be allowed to provide preferential treatment to an affiliated or well established company; this could push smaller start-ups completely out of business.
On June 12, 2017, a ‘Day of Action’ was held to get the word out about the FCC’s plans to jettison the existing Net Neutrality guidelines. On this day, the internet was plastered with pop-ups urging users to get in contact with the FCC and demand that Net Neutrality be upheld. The first and most prominent company to join in was Amazon.com. Following Amazon were other well known companies like Facebook, Apple, AT&T, Netflix, and Google. The burden of keeping Net Neutrality in the public eye falls upon any citizen who desires a free and open internet.
Writing emails and letters to your local and state representatives is essential – without communication, it becomes difficult for governmental representatives to understand the concerns of their constituents. If the FCC does jettison its Net Neutrality guidelines, Congress would have the job of reforming the law, and for Congress to effectively do this, they must be informed. Another important step for a concerned citizen to take would be to only support ISPs who have expressed support for Net Neutrality, if you’re lucky enough to live in an area with a choice of ISP.