Reading09: Net Neutrality, or why thinking about our internet situation just makes me mad
Net neutrality is, in short, the principle that Internet Service Providers (ISPs), like Comcast, AT&T, Time Warner, etc, cannot throttle or block particular content on any grounds except for legality. In other words, they have to act as infrastructure and infrastructure alone – who the user communicates with, and what they say, cannot be grounds for their web traffic to be handled any differently.
The arguments for net neutrality mostly focus on protecting the customers (both individuals and other companies) from predatory practices by ISPs. A free and open internet is in everyone’s best interest. Without net neutrality, ISPs would be free to do things such as block certain sites based on their content, throttle or block entirely services of competitors, and divide the internet into fast and slow lanes based on who’s paying.
The arguments against net neutrality say that the government is overreaching with these regulations, and is stifling the free market competition. Removing the ability for companies to have different tiers, or to differentiate traffic stifles the growth of the ISP industry. Certain services could benefit from paying to be guaranteed fast access, and companies are now disincentivized from innovating to provide a better product.
Like many people on the tech-ier side of things, I am staunchly for net neutrality. A lot of the arguments for repealing the net neutrality regulations claim “The ISPs won’t do these profit grabbing things that they would now be able to do! In fact, we don’t even want to! We just… don’t want that regulation!” I’m pretty cynical on this subject as a whole – to me, it seems that net neutrality is in the best interest of everyone but the ISPs (who stand to make increased profits without it), and its repeal is symptom of large corporate donors having too strong a voice in American politics.
Questions of implementation and enforcement I’m less able to speak to – beyond having regulations and federal oversight from the FTC/FCC to punish infractions, I don’t know the specifics of what can be done to enforce this. If certain services load just a little faster on a certain ISP, how are we to tell if that’s deliberate, or just a quirk of the fluctuating speeds and unreliable connection that we’ve all-too-often come to accept as normal from our ISPs?
But, above all, I am not at all confident in the free market fixing all of our internet woes. Time and time again, the ISPs have showed that they are not interested in continually improving their service, iterating on their company for the benefit of the consumer. The internet sector as a whole has been historically very money-driven and bad for the consumer. Staggering amounts of money have disappeared to ISPs and telecom utilities companies, with nothing visible to show for it, and no clear answers given what happened to it (See the $200 billion dollar grant to cable companies to build fiber optic lines for the US that just… disappeared).
The internet situation in the US is profoundly broken. ISPs are already charging twice (charging users on both ends, be they people or corporations) on any interactions that occurs over the cables they own. They want the freedom to differentiate the service they provide in order to get more money out of people. In what other sector do the people that own the infrastructure have such radical control over everyone else involved? We need to reassess, and it’s hard to do so when the huge corporations have such strong voices (read: such deep pockets).