Last week the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted on new rules regarding net neutrality, the principle that all internet users should have equal access to content, sites, and platforms without discrimination or differential pricing. If the proposal goes forward, internet service providers (ISPs) could be allowed to charge more money to content companies for faster service. Activists at Thursday’s vote protested in favor of maintaining net neutrality, showing how heated the debate has become.
The FCC Supports Both Open Internet and “Reasonable” Deals
The FCC’s new proposal would not allow ISPs to block or slow access to content, as some fear. It would allow service providers to charge more for prioritized service; those paying for the privilege would have their data packets delivered more quickly and reliably. Thursday’s vote was 3-2 in favor of the proposal, leading to the next phase, which involves collecting public opinion over the next four months.
Up until now, the internet has grown and developed with the idea that an “open” internet – one where any user can access any legal content they want on any platform – is best. FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler called the idea of an open internet a “national asset” and promised not to compromise it. Still, Wheeler’s assurances that only “commercially reasonable” deals would be struck if the plan moves ahead aren’t enough to satisfy individuals and companies in favor of net neutrality.
Arguments For and Against Net Neutrality
Those in favor of net neutrality include consumer advocate groups and companies such as Google, Yahoo!, Microsoft, and Amazon. Ending net neutrality could mean that large telecommunications and cable companies, which currently provide the vast majority of broadband access, would have control over who sees what. If taken to the extreme, they could block or drastically slow down delivery of content from competitors. Companies who don’t pay for priority would be relegated to the “slow lanes” of the internet.
Many in the pro-net neutrality camp are also in favor of reclassifying ISPs as utilities. Proponents hope the increased regulation by the FCC would help maintain an open internet.
Those in favor of ending net neutrality include cable and telephone companies. They argue that ending net neutrality is the way to maintain an open internet, encourage competition, and let the free market flourish. Although ISPs could theoretically block access to certain content, they argue it would not be in their best interest as it would make them less competitive and drive consumers away. Furthermore, they argue that it’s fair to charge more money to broadband companies using more bandwidth, since their data-heavy usage stresses the network and slows down information transmission for all users.
Other arguments against net neutrality warn that allowing the FCC to set regulations on how the internet works will invite the government’s cumbersome and bureaucratic operations into the realm of the internet, which has done very well up until now without excessive government oversight. Some also worry that this would let the government easily censor or spy on Americans.
For individual users, the end of net neutrality would likely mean higher prices, especially for content streaming sites like Netflix, since ISPs could charge both content providers and internet users higher prices for access. And even if you can access any content you want through your ISP, you may find it easier to access only content that has been given priority through your ISP because of deals made with content providers.
FCC Chairman to Appear Before Congress
Tom Wheeler will appear before Congress tomorrow to answer questions on the FCC’s proposal. If the FCC moves forward with the proposal, it will face many more questions, such as how to determine which kinds of pay-for-priority deals should be allowed, how to maintain priority across different networks for paying companies, and how to ensure fairness to non-paying users.