It is difficult to point to an issue, outside of gun control or abortion, that has become such an epicenter of political debate as the issue of net neutrality.
The vote of the Federal Communications Commission last Thursday to repeal 2015 net neutrality policies has caused a storm within mainstream media, with many proponents of the regulations reacting as if the world as we know it has come to an end.
Democratic Senator Bernie Sanders released a statement that the repeal was an “egregious attack on our democracy” and another sign that the current administration has sided with “big money” against the “interests of the American people.” Sanders’ fellow party member from New York, Chuck Schumer, has already told media that Democrats will rally to block the policies repeal in the Senate under the authority of the Congressional Review Act.
Meanwhile, a coalition of public attorneys from across the U.S. has made the claim that by repealing net neutrality, the administration violated the Administrative Procedure Act, essentially overstepping its executive powers. They are now gearing up to sue the FCC in response to the its decision.
Understanding the underlying issues at the base of net neutrality is essential to understanding these waves of outrage, and more importantly, the political significance of the policies, and the economic consequences of their establishment and recent repeal.
The very term “net neutrality” is a bit of a misnomer.
“Neutrality” connotes a type of passive non-discrimination. While the policies of net neutrality do produce a certain level of equality for web content, an the end of the day, these are a set of federal regulations, and regulations force people to do things.
It is around this point that the war of ideas breaks out.
Proponents of net neutrality believe that governments, media companies, and internet service providers (ISPs) should not discriminate between different types of data packages in any way. This includes blocking content or charging extra for different services.
Supporters point to various inequalities that net neutrality seems to help prevent, on the surface. Proponents want net neutrality as a way of promoting a free and level playing field for companies to compete in.
Indeed, enacting these rules does prevent some unfair outcomes for users, as it blocks the possibility for internet services to provide low-quality access for different users of the same service. For example, if a certain media streaming service pays a particular ISP for priority access, then watching a movie from that service, using that ISP, would be a completely different experience than that of a user with a different provider.
This essentially translates into two users paying for the same service, but receiving different experiences because of ISPs’ control of data flow preference. Neutrality also opens the way for internet start-up companies to enter the market without restriction or unfair disadvantage compared to more established companies that have already achieved preferred status.
While, these specific issues are valid, the thing that is mainly driving the pro-neutrality camp is the fear of private corporations controlling the internet in any way. The very idea that ISPs could have the power to favor certain services over others evokes a certain 1984 Big Brother feeling. It is mainly due to this “free” environment that net neutrality provides that the policies have gained so much popular support among many swaths of the American public.
This explains the near-catastrophic sentiment in the reaction of neutrality supporters following last week’s FCC vote. Their worst fears have become a reality. With the repeal of the net neutrality rules, ISPs will now be able to charge different content providers different amounts and potentially block certain providers as well.
Opponents of net neutrality also have their list of potential pitfalls to support their position.
A very commonly heard claim is that net neutrality will stifle innovation and investment, arguing that ISPs require higher revenue in order to invest in broadband infrastructure to bring broadband to more customers. In other words, net neutrality creates a legal environment that offers no incentive for these companies to invest in building more advanced networks. This concern is exacerbated by the explosion of internet traffic volume in recent years, due to phenomena like streaming services, and the transfer of many commercial activities to the net. Opponents claim that ISPs are simply not able to handle these ever-growing waves of data streaming across their broadband without creating some sort of preferential pay system.
Detractors of neutrality also point out that there is no evidence that the policies have improved internet experience. The policies have only been around since 2015, so they can hardly be the cause of the boom in internet-based companies, web services, and overall use.
However, like arguments supporting net neutrality, the crux of the opponents’ position is largely one of principle.
In short, net neutrality is, in many ways, opposed to an authentic free market internet. By forcing the policy of treating all content and services equally, the burden of providing that content is shifted to ISPs. This does not only force private internet providers to foot the bill for carrying heavier data packages, but also other users. Subscribers to an ISP who choose to utilize services requiring more bandwidth, such as movie streaming, are essentially being subsidized by subscribers using their internet for the basics, like email and online shopping.
The basis for neutrality opponents has not gone unnoticed by the policies’ supporters. Following the FCC’s vote, some observers have begun accusing the Ajit Pai, the Commission’s head, of being irrationally influenced by “anti-regulation” philosophy. One observer declared the chairman “drunk on ideology,” to the point of slashing all government regulation, regardless of its benefits.
The Ultimate Fairness of an Unregulated Internet
For opponents of net neutrality, the most powerful argument is to demonstrate that the very repealing of these regulations will likely have the effects that supporters of neutrality want to bring about.
At the end of the day, regulations restrict the internet environment more than they “level the playing field.” It is these very restrictions that pose the strongest barriers to improving user experience, both in terms of access and price.
To illustrate this point, compare private industry to any other field that is highly regulated by the government. There are two things that all of these fields have in common: that they have traditionally been controlled by the government, and that they are embarrassingly less cost-effective than parallel industries in the private sector.
Take progress in space travel as one example. Elon Musk’s SpaceX spent 320 times less on building its Dragon rocket in 2012 than NASA spent on the Orion space capsule.
Let that sink in.
All of the blooming innovation in other fields is precisely due to the lack of government-imposed restrictions. This is due to the fact that companies tend to have one thing in mind: creating a better product. They strive to cut bureaucracy and costs and streamline processes so that they can (gasp) make more money. While critics of Pai are right in stating that an anti-regulation stance for its own sake is misguided, and indeed dangerous, leaving open the possibility for companies to provide services in the way that is most cost-effective — especially in the tech sector — is the very thing that allows better services to emerge.
Which brings us to the next point.
Supporters of neutrality correctly state that the regulations open the door for ISPs to manipulate the data flow to customers to their liking, but the question that any fair observer has to ask is: why would ISPs intentionally do this?
True, if a particular ISP owns a certain web service, it would have an interest in users utilizing it, as opposed to a competing service. However, if a customer is paying for unabated access to certain content, it would undermine the service of an ISP if it “throttled,” or slowed down, data flow for that service. It is ultimately in the interest of ISPs to provide better, more inclusive service. Even the critics of the FCC repeal admit that the new legal terms ISPs need to abide by require them to publicly disclose their activities in prioritizing content.
The Coming Battle
As noted, last week’s FCC repeal is far from the end of the net neutrality debate. Supporters of the regulations are now scrambling to counter the Commission’s decision. Lawmakers on Capitol Hill are preparing to introduce legislation on neutrality regulation that could completely circumvent the FCC’s decision-making power on the issue.
The legal and legislative battles ahead will likely be an important series of events in formulating key issues in American law, including carving out distinctions between services and utilities and defining the executive branch’s power on controlling public services. They will form the next round in the battle of ideas surrounding net neutrality.