Net Neutrality is the basic principle that internet serviceproviders (ISPs) like Comcast, AT&T, and Verizon, cannot speed up, slowdown, or alter access to any content. Under net neutrality, ISPs provide access tothe internet but cannot filter the speed or availability of that access basedon which websites or services utilized. This has been the norm in the United States for decades andfinds its roots in the 1970sAT&T monopoly of phone lines. The Federal Communications Commission(FCC) recognized that free and open access to the entire internet wasabsolutely essential, and that ISPs, as businesses, would have a profitincentive to interfere with this freedom. The commission wrote:”We were concernedabout the possibility that the Bell companies might favor their own dataprocessing activities by discriminatory services, cross-subsidization, improperpricing of common carrier services, and related anticompetitive practices andactivities.
“US district judge Harold Greene confirmed this when he said:”That the ability forabuse exists as does the incentive, of that there can also be no doubt. Asstated above, information services are fragile, and because of their fragility,time-sensitivity, and their negative reactions to even small degradations intransmission quality and speed, they are most easily subject to destruction bythose who control their transmission.”This was recently challenged when FCC Chairman Ajit Pai declaredhis intent to reexamine the FCC’s entire approach to net neutrality; basedon past statements by Pai, it is widely expected that the FCC will cease tomonitor internet access as a utility and allow ISPs to determine how internetaccess is administered for themselves. The basic design of the internet follows a basic”end-to-end” principle: the user on one end would decide which sites or programshe or she would access on the other end. Allowing ISPs to filter access basedon their priority system for which “ends” and to change the billing accordinglyviolates this fundamental premise of what the internet is supposed to be.The internet has been referred to as the “GreatEqualizer” for a variety of reasons. From a social and politicalperspective, it allows users to compete for exposure on the basis of the meritsof their ideals, not on the exposure that a large bank account could purchase.This is why blog posts, tweets, and articles from completely unknown users can”go viral,” receiving literally millions of views within a matter of hours.
From a business perspective, the internet is arguably themost entrepreneurial force that has ever existed. Any person can start abusiness with little more than an idea and internet access. If, however, thatinternet access is filtered based on an ISP’s prerogatives, this open accesscan quickly be destroyed. For example, Netflix revolutionized the movie andtelevision show-viewing industry with their mail-based rentals, and quicklybecame a pioneer in streaming video entertainment.
In 2012, carriers beganclaiming that Netflix was using too much bandwidth (despite the fact thatconsumers were only using the services they had already paid for) and somebroadband providers, such as Comcast, refused to upgrade the infrastructure inorder to provide the services they had already sold, but were now being used toa much higher extent by larger numbers of people. This caused buffering anddelays which had a noticeable negative impact on Netflix’s business. Comcast,Time Warner Cable, and other ISPs requiredthat Netflix make new payments; in order to stay afloat, Netflix paid thesebut had to pass the fees on to their customers. This greatly altered Netflix’sbusiness model and drastically decreased their financial momentum in theindustry. Although ISPs publicly state that they will not change ratesor charge based on where someone tries to go on the internet, there are tworeasons that these reassurances cannot be trusted. The first is that we caneasily see that in other countries where net neutrality doesn’t exist, billingby where a user is going or what a user is doing on the internet iscommonplace. The following are two examples of what internet access packageslook like in Portugal:This is not something that American internet users are usedto, and considering the vast outcry to Congress from the US public when the FCCannounced its decision to reconsider its stance on net neutrality, this isn’tsomething they want, either. The second reason ISPs can’t really be trusted to not followa billing model similar to what is illustrated in the graphic above is whatthey say when they’re not making politically measured statements on netneutrality.
Consider, for example, what AT&T CEO Ed Whitacre saidin 2005:”Now what theythe Internet firms would like to do is use my pipes free, but I ain’t goingto let them do that because we have spent this capital and we have to have areturn on it. … Why should they be allowed to use my pipes? The internet can’tbe free in that sense, because we and the cable companies have made aninvestment and for a Google or Yahoo or Vonage or anybody to expect to usethese pipes free is nuts.”Another example would be the simple fact that ISPs haveattempted to bill for access whenever new services our means of using theinternet come available. In the early 2000s working from home was becomingextremely popular, and one of the most common ways of accessing work from avirtual location was by using a Virtual Private Network, or VPN. Comcast wasone of several ISPs that blocked VPNs; this is thetext of an error message someone would use when they attempted to accesstheir VPN over Comcast lines:”Thank you for yourmessage. High traffic telecommuting while utilizing a VPN can adversely affectthe condition of the network while disrupting the connection of our regularresidential subscribers. To accommodatethe needs of our customers who do choose to operate VPN, Comcast offers theComcast @Home Professional product.
@Home Pro is designed to meet the needs ofthe ever growing population of small office/home office customers andtelecommuters that need to take advantage of protocols such as VPN. Thisproduct will cost $95 per month, and afford you with standards which differfrom the standard residential product. If you’re interested in upgrading ….
“Some may wonder why this is such a big deal to Americanusers. The answer revolves around simple geography: the United States is solarge that ISPs found the most profitable solution to providing internet accesswas to divide the area up in such a way that no national monopoly was formed,but regional monopolies were. It is difficult to challenge these from abusiness perspective simply because of the cost; for an ISP to move into a newarea and challenge the status quo, the new business would have to lay all newinfrastructure, which quickly becomes cost-prohibitive. This is much less of anissue in many countries in Europe where the population is much more dense andbuilding new infrastructure is cheaper simply because the physical distancethat fiber has to cover is much shorter.
Ending net neutrality puts one of the greatest equalizingforces ever created into the hands of businesses which have repeatedlydemonstrated that reaping a profit outweighs unfettered access in theirpriorities. This is a win only for broadband providers, and this ispurchased at the cost of freedom of access that generations of Americans hasenjoyed.