Few things in this country are ever neutral. Surprisingly, the Internet seems to be one of the few. It is the platform on which opinions are expressed, ideas are disseminated and passions run awry. The World Wide Web is an embodiment of modernity. It’s an amalgam of the human condition — jumbled, chaotic, gross and inspiring. But as companies build lucrative businesses on the Internet’s convenient platform, its role in our society changes from its original intent as a source of information and exchange. Today, more than ever, the web seems quite tangled.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has grappled with its definition of the Internet for quite some time. Generally, the agency has regulated Internet service providers (ISPs) in the same way that it regulates telephone companies. Prior to this year, the FCC maintained that service providers had to treat all traffic equally and neutrally. Providers could not promote or diminish the clout of certain sites based on any criteria. Much in the same way that telephone companies cannot restrict or facilitate certain calls based on who the call was completed by, ISPs could not provide greater access to bandwidth to certain sites over others. This past January, however, the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled against the FCC in Verizon v. Federal Communications Commission. As a result of the ruling, Internet service providers would be able to charge for Internet access based on customers’ or companies’ usage. What is more, service providers would be able to restrict bandwidth for certain kinds of content or content on certain sites. Seemingly, the goal for large ISPs in the wake of this ruling is to develop premium packages with faster bandwidth that web site operators could purchase to increase the speed at which users can access their content.
As a result of the January ruling, the FCC rewrote its regulations on how ISPs can manage bandwidth. Reinforcing the requirements set forth by the Court of Appeals, the FCC stated that ISPs would be required to provide a baseline speed for all content on the Internet. That said, providers would be allowed to reach individual arrangements with different sites to provide them with faster speeds than the baseline speed. As it phases out old net neutrality regulations and develops new guidelines for Internet providers, the FCC will require that they review any special arrangements to provide faster speeds to premium payers on a case-by-case basis. Many conservatives see this as partisan mongering by an executive agency, especially as right-wing interest groups align themselves against strong regulation of ISPs. And while average consumers have not seen stark changes in their Internet experiences this year, large content providers have already pitted themselves against major telecom giants in the wake of the pay-for-performance web.
We must decide whether bandwidth is a commodity, akin to socks, or a vital component of our public infrastructure. As the debate over net neutrality becomes more contested, conservative groups like American Commitment are starting campaigns to denounce net neutrality as “Marxist” and dubiously comparing FCC regulations to mass government surveillance. And while groups like this may have justified fears in many respects, they leave something to be desired. As the Internet occupies a greater role in this century’s landscape, modern society must decide whether the Internet is a means to an end or an end in and of itself. We must decide whether bandwidth is a commodity, akin to socks, or a vital component of our public infrastructure. Soon enough, we must decide whether oversized Internet service providers are selling a good, or whether they are stewards of a larger common good (or, at the very least, a common currency). With its latest “Open Internet” proposal, the FCC seems determined to ensure consumers and content providers do not lose existing bandwidth, even if ISPs are legally allowed to charge sites more for speed increases.
Netflix, the online streaming giant whose notoriety is matched only by its vast selection of on-demand films and TV shows, has built an empire on the largely predictable operating costs of the Internet. At peak times, Netflix and YouTube comprise more than half of all web bandwidth being used in North America. To say that large content providers have a stake in the fight over net neutrality is an understatement. Indeed, Netflix’s entire business model depends on a free and open Internet. In early 2014, many Netflix users experienced slower load times for content as Comcast began to limit the bandwidth the company could use. In an effort to keep customers happy, Netflix reached an independent agreement with Comcast (and a subsequent agreement with Verizon) to ensure respectable download speeds. And while it arranged these agreements promptly, Netflix was by no means happy. The company, along with sites like Reddit and Twitter, has been vocally opposed to relaxing FCC net neutrality regulations. In this battle, private Internet firms — corporations, by all means — have aligned themselves with otherwise anti-corporate progressives. One of the largest interest groups in support of net neutrality, for example, is Demand Progress, whose agenda also includes instituting a national popular vote for president, ending military detention practices and increasing transparency in covert defense operations. While these are causes that could plausibly be supported by many web start-ups, corporations are hardly willing to convert financial capital into political capital for causes that are irrelevant to them — Netflix’s alignment, while warranted, is an inevitably strategic one. It wants to avoid losing the stability and fixed operating costs net neutrality affords it. But this battle is bigger than download speeds.
With strong net neutrality regulations, large content disseminators like Netflix benefit from virtually unlimited bandwidth at a predictable cost. And while this may seem unfair to the Internet service providers that must handle this bandwidth (after all, AT&T has argued that ‘there is no free lunch’), treating content equally and neutrally ensures that smaller disseminators have an opportunity to build businesses on the web’s open platform. It ensures that if a smaller start-up decides to compete with Netflix, it will have a relatively fair shot at getting content to users just as quickly. But most of all, it means that creators and sharers of information on the web will have leverage against large telecommunications monopolies. Allowing gargantuan Internet service providers to charge more for greater access to users would, as many have pointed out, create artificial scarcity of bandwidth. Indeed, while an open Internet is vital to free expression, it is also a crucial part of a competitive and fluid free market.
While an open Internet is vital to free expression, it is also a crucial part of a competitive and fluid free market. Bandwidth is only as scarce as telecommunications companies want or need it to be. Increasing investment in technology by ISPs can easily accommodate increases in net traffic over time. Removing net neutrality from the equation reduces the incentive for increasing infrastructure because bandwidth can be preferentially distributed to web sites that can afford special arrangements with ISPs and premium bandwidth packages. Increased bandwidth to heavily trafficked sites that generate high revenues will come at the expense of bandwidth to less-trafficked and likely low-revenue sites. In a theoretically unregulated Internet (where telecom companies have free reign to control bandwidth scarcity), Netflix’s requirement for more bandwidth will come at the expense of smaller sites — sites like blogs or social media pages where ordinary people present original and extraordinary ideas. In an Internet that is not neutral, these sites will load more slowly than sites with the financial backing to afford premium bandwidth packages. And even so, sites with the funding to afford greater bandwidth will face higher costs in an unregulated web than they did in the neutral web. For once, the interests of large (non-telecom) corporations seem to be aligned with the interests of ordinary people — both financially and ideologically. Even if the FCC promises to enforce a strong baseline for the provision of sufficient bandwidth to all types of Internet traffic, the vague language of their new regulations makes them susceptible to varying interpretations by Internet service providers, or worse — the courts.
Behind the ethereal concept of the Internet — the one we interact with every day — there is a very physical manifestation. This ‘internet of things’ is comprised of the billions of objects connected to the World Wide Web at any given time. Many have predicted that in some future, the ‘Internet of things’ will become an ‘Internet of Everything.’ They envision a world where every object will be, at least marginally, connected to the Internet. Moving forward, we must decide whether this ‘Internet of things’ is itself a thing. We know that Internet infrastructure must be funded, and telecommunications companies are in a justifiable position to collect funds from consumers and use them to provide bandwidth and manage this global network. But where do they overstep their roles? Where does managing the Internet become controlling it? Nick Gillespie, a libertarian journalist, argues that burdensome FCC regulation inhibits the development of a free and open Internet. But Mr. Gillespie is misguided in his perception of what a free and open Internet actually entails. In a time when increasingly oligarchical telecom corporations have the newfound freedom to sell greater bandwidth to the highest bidder, it’s prudent to ask: who is actually regulating whom?