Net Neutrality is the basic principle that internet service providers (ISPs) like Comcast, AT&T, and Verizon, cannot speed up, slow down, or alter access to any content. Under net neutrality, ISPs provide access to the internet but don’t filter the speed or availability of that access based on which websites or services the user is utilizing.
This has been the norm in the United States for a very long time, and finds its roots in the 1970s AT&T monopoly of phone lines. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) recognized that free and open access to the entire internet was absolutely essential, and that ISPs, as businesses, would have a profit incentive to interfere with this freedom.
The commission wrote:
“We were concerned about the possibility that [the Bell companies] might favor their own data processing activities by discriminatory services, cross-subsidization, improper pricing of common carrier services, and related anticompetitive practices and activities.”
US district judge Harold Greene confirmed this when he said:
“That the ability for abuse exists as does the incentive, of that there can also be no doubt. As stated above, information services are fragile, and because of their fragility, time-sensitivity, and their negative reactions to even small degradations in transmission quality and speed, they are most easily subject to destruction by those who control their transmission.”
This was recently challenged when FCC Chairman Ajit Pai declared his intent to reexamine the FCC’s entire approach to net neutrality; based on past statements by Pai, it is widely expected that the FCC will cease to monitor internet access as a utility and allow ISPs to determine how internet access 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 programs he or she would access on the other end. Allowing ISPs to filter access based on their priority system for which “ends” and to change the billing accordingly violates this fundamental premise of what the internet is supposed to be.
The internet has been referred to as the “Great Equalizer” for a variety of reasons. From a social and political perspective, it allows users to compete for exposure on the basis of the merits of 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 the most entrepreneurial force that has ever existed. Any person can start a business with little more than an idea and internet access. If, however, that internet access is filtered based on an ISP’s prerogatives, this open access can quickly be destroyed. For example, Netflix revolutionized the movie and television show-viewing industry with their mail-based rentals, and quickly became a pioneer in streaming video entertainment. In 2012, carriers began claiming that Netflix was using too much bandwidth (despite the fact that consumers were only using the services they had already paid for) and some broadband providers, such as Comcast, refused to upgrade the infrastructure in order to provide the services they had already sold, but were now being used to a much higher extent by larger numbers of people. This caused buffering and delays which had a noticeable negative impact on Netflix’s business. Comcast, Time Warner Cable, and other ISPs required that Netflix make new payments; in order to stay afloat, Netflix paid these but had to pass the fees on to their customers. This greatly altered Netflix’s business model and drastically decreased their financial momentum in the industry. Although ISPs publicly state that they will not change rates or charge based on where someone tries to go on the internet, there are two reasons that these reassurances cannot be trusted. The first is that we can easily see that in other countries where net neutrality doesn’t exist, billing by where a user is going or what a user is doing on the internet is commonplace. The following are two examples of what internet access packages look like in Portugal:
This is not something that American internet users are used to, and considering the vast outcry to Congress from the US public when the FCC announced its decision to reconsider its stance on net neutrality, this isn’t something they want, either.
The second reason ISPs can’t really be trusted to not follow a billing model similar to what is illustrated in the graphic above is what they say when they’re not making politically measured statements on net neutrality. Consider, for example, what AT&T CEO Ed Whitacre said in 2005:
“Now what they [the Internet firms] would like to do is use my pipes free, but I ain’t going to let them do that because we have spent this capital and we have to have a return on it. … Why should they be allowed to use my pipes? The internet can’t be free in that sense, because we and the cable companies have made an investment and for a Google or Yahoo or Vonage or anybody to expect to use these pipes free is nuts.”
Another example would be the simple fact that ISPs have attempted to bill for access whenever new services our means of using the internet come available. In the early 2000s working from home was becoming extremely popular, and one of the most common ways of accessing work from a virtual location was by using a Virtual Private Network, or VPN. Comcast was one of several ISPs that blocked VPNs; this is the text of an error message someone would use when they attempted to access their VPN over Comcast lines:
“Thank you for your message. High traffic telecommuting while utilizing a VPN can adversely affect the condition of the network while disrupting the connection of our regular residential subscribers. To accommodate the needs of our customers who do choose to operate VPN, Comcast offers the Comcast @Home Professional product. @Home Pro is designed to meet the needs of the ever growing population of small office/home office customers and telecommuters that need to take advantage of protocols such as VPN. This product will cost $95 per month, and afford you with standards which differ from the
standard residential product. If you’re interested in upgrading ….”
Some may wonder why this is such a big deal to American users. The answer revolves around simple geography: the United States is so large that ISPs found the most profitable solution to providing internet access was 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 a business perspective simply because of the cost; for an ISP to move into a new area and challenge the status quo, the new business would have to lay all new infrastructure, which quickly becomes cost-prohibitive. This is much less of an issue in many countries in Europe where the population is much more dense and building new infrastructure is cheaper simply because the physical distance that fiber has to cover is much shorter. Ending net neutrality puts one of the greatest equalizing forces ever created into the hands of businesses which have repeatedly demonstrated that reaping a profit outweighs unfettered access in their priorities. This is a win only for broadband providers, and this is purchased at the cost of freedom of access that generations of Americans has enjoyed.