Preserving a Free and Open Web

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It’s been a long day at school, and you sit down to binge watch another season of your favorite show on Netflix. However, instead of that bright red logo welcoming you into bliss, you’re met instead with a loading screen blocking you from your beloved series. In 2014, Comcast customers had their Netflix access slowed down after Netflix wouldn’t pay Comcast for continued high-speed content delivery. Netflix eventually backed down, paying Comcast for infrastructure used to speed up Netflix service. However, in 2015, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) stepped in to protect all content providers’ rights with net neutrality.

Net neutrality is the principle that internet service providers (ISPs) should provide equal access to all websites by delivering them to consumers without preferential treatment or blocking. This principle has ensured that individuals, small businesses, and large corporations have equal footing to best serve consumers. However, the FCC’s vote on December 14 to abolish net neutrality now threatens small businesses, corporations, and internet consumers.

The Internet has created new opportunities and driven growth for small businesses. Online technologies have allowed small businesses to market, hire, and sell without middlemen directly to consumers, increasing profits. Many small businesses are looking to further expand their online presences. According to the National Small Business Association, over a quarter of small firms are looking to increase their profits by conducting more operations online in 2017. Net neutrality has created this opportunity by leveling the playing field between small businesses and large corporations.

The end of net neutrality is set to give larger companies a considerable edge by allowing them to pay for faster speeds. According to a research division of Google, consumers are more than 53 percent likely to give up on waiting for content to load after only three seconds, meaning that putting websites in “slow lanes” can deal crushing blows to businesses that cannot afford prioritization. With the passage of net neutrality, ISPs have quietly abandoned their promises not to create fast and slow lanes, opening small businesses to these competitive disadvantages.

Data cap exemptions, which allow usage of certain websites not to be counted against consumers’ monthly data limits, are another advantage ISPs are looking to offer. Freedom to Tinker reported that after a promotion in South Africa exempted WhatsApp from mobile data usage caps, its usage tripled, likely at the expense of other messaging apps. In an FCC hearing in 2013, Verizon counsel Helgi Walker told the commission that Verizon would be pursuing these forms of preferential treatment if it weren’t for net neutrality regulations. Verizon has already unveiled a mobile data cap exemption service for businesses, and other ISPs are sure to follow. Allowing ISPs to grant artificial advantages to established players creates barriers to entry that entrepreneurs and small businesses cannot afford, drastically limiting the diversity of content the Internet has to offer.

Net neutrality has also prevented ISPs from abusing their positions in pushing their own services and interests. For example, from 2011 to 2013, Google’s mobile payment app, Google Wallet, was blocked by AT&T, Verizon, and Sprint, who had stakes in the rival payment app Softcard. ISPs now own a plethora of their own competing services like Hulu and DirecTV that compete with private alternatives like Netflix and YouTube. Repealing net neutrality puts the free market competition of the Internet at risk in favor of a select few services operated by major telecom companies. This gutting of the free and fair Internet ultimately harms consumers, who now need to choose between using their favorite services at the cost of slower speeds and higher prices or switching to alternatives preferred by ISPs. By compelling consumers to use services supplied by the largest companies, ISPs will create an environment in which entrepreneurs cannot afford to compete, stifling innovation and allowing incumbent services to charge higher prices.

The greatest danger posed to individuals, however, is the threat to free speech. For example, Facebook’s Free Basics offers free access to a select few sponsored apps in developing countries, including the Bing search engine and Facebook itself. This trains consumers to use a limited number of services, even if they later switch to more full-featured internet plans, and limits free expression to only what sponsored sites allow. For these reasons, India instated net neutrality policies, banning Free Basics. A more chilling example occured in 2004 when Canadian telecom Telus blocked a website supporting a labor strike against the company. ISPs cannot be trusted to uphold the free speech when their interests conflict with that of the Internet community. Repealing net neutrality allows ISPs to filter the Internet, striking a death blow to the freedom we now enjoy: the freedom to view, post, and share whatever and whenever we like, from memes to political activism to almost anything imaginable.

Opponents of net neutrality, chiefly telecom officials and lobbyists, argue that Title II, a legal mechanism originally intended for phone companies which was repurposed to implement net neutrality, poses considerable regulatory burden on ISPs, stifling investment in expanding Internet access. To support his deregulatory policies, Ajit Pai, the FCC commissioner, cited one study claiming investments in new infrastructure by the twelve largest ISPs were down five percent over the last two years.

However, ISPs’ shareholder reports paint a different picture. In December 2015, AT&T told shareholders that it would deploy more fiber-optic cable in 2016 than 2015 and that its future business prospects were not affected by Title II. Similarly, December 2016 reports by Comcast and Charter admitted that Title II fears had been overblown, and the new regulations hadn’t hurt business. Repealing net neutrality fixes a nonexistent problem to the detriment of all but a few telecom companies.

The American public has the power to challenge this repeal by calling and emailing their elected representatives to push for legislation mandating net neutrality. Republicans have proposed a plan that would ban website blocking, but otherwise repeals net neutrality and thus is similarly damaging to the Internet. Democrats are pushing to reinstate net neutrality in full, but Republican opposition leaves it unlikely to be passed. In the absence of legislative action, the last recourse for the public is to take the issue to the courts. Public agencies like the FCC must have factual reasons for policy changes, and Ajit Pai’s overregulation argument doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. In addition, the FCC is required to hold a public commenting period for proposed regulatory changes, but commenting on net neutrality repeal suffered from millions of fake comments which the FCC refused to investigate, and required commenting on limitations to local regulations was not held. In light of these irregularities, states’ attorneys general from Washington to Idaho to New York are planning to sue the FCC over the botched repeal process. The courts need to step in and strike down the repeal of net neutrality to protect the entire Internet ecosystem from collapse.