Accessing the Internet has always been so simple. Open up a browser and tada, you have the Internet. However, society owes this easy Web access to one important concept, that of net neutrality, which is the idea that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) should not be permitted to discriminate against websites or content. This means ISPs have to treat all traffic equally, neither slowing down or speeding up consumers’ access to any websites. Yet just two months ago, the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington struck down net neutrality rules approved by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) back in 2010. The court defended its ruling on the basis that the Internet isn’t legally considered to be a major telecommunications utility, so the FCC doesn’t have the right to subject the Internet to the same strict regulation as utilities. As a result of this decision, the companies which we pay to use the Internet—such as Comcast and Verizon—are now free to regulate our Internet access on their own terms. Experts claimed that ISPs could potentially charge a premium to content providers such as Netflix or Wikipedia for faster services, incurring fees that we, the consumers, may ultimately have to pay.
Only two months after this ruling, such predictions have begun to ring true. In late February, the first deal of this sort was struck when Comcast and Netflix announced that the online media streamer will pay the ISP for faster and more reliable access to Comcast’s Netflix subscribers. Whether or not Netflix will be increasing its prices to account for these additional costs is still unknown, but this recent agreement shows that the commercial infrastructure behind the Internet is already changing. Considering that the Internet provider industry is primarily dominated by two powerhouse ISPs, Comcast and Verizon, the government needs to move quickly to restore net neutrality, as well as further establish clearer regulations regarding ISPs, lest the Internet become a service restricted by fees rather than the freedom it should be.
In July 2012, the United Nations Human Rights Council passed a resolution affirming Internet freedom as a human right. However, the lack of net neutrality provides ISPs with the ability to censor the Internet, an infringement upon this right. Without net neutrality rules in place, ISPs are not prohibited from restricting and slowing Web traffic. Companies would be in their full legal right to block access to specific websites or Internet applications should their economic or political interests ever encourage them to do so. Clearly, this threatens the open nature of the Internet, posing the same danger as government censorship would. In recognition of this, several countries—including Finland, France and Spain—have already moved to clearly establish net neutrality. The United States needs to follow suit in order to ensure an uncensored Internet.
Furthermore, the unrestrained powers of ISPs threaten to transform the Internet from an open platform to the sandbox of big businesses. The right to manipulate web traffic can be easily exploited. Companies can withhold bandwidth, forcing content providers to pay for decent streaming speeds to their websites. This setup would favor the well-established, financially-stable companies which have the resources to shoulder these additional costs, companies like Apple and YouTube. Meanwhile, the smaller businesses on the Web would have to endure slower speeds. When faced with this difference in traffic speeds, individuals may be encouraged to access the faster, corporate sites instead, to the disadvantage of smaller companies.
Ultimately, the government needs to secure the open nature of the Internet one way or another. If the FCC chooses not to appeal the court ruling, it should then move to establish the Internet as a telecommunications service, thus enabling the FCC to strictly regulate ISP companies. In early February, the first steps to achieving this were taken when the Open Preservation Act was introduced and referred to the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, where it currently remains. However, the bill—which would restore the rules struck down in the FCC ruling—may drag on in committees. While waiting for the bill to be passed, the FCC should take alternative actions to protect the Internet. Additional possibilities could include requiring ISPs to guarantee minimum traffic speed to websites. This restriction would make payment for decent traffic speeds an option, not a necessity, thus allowing small businesses to continue functioning on the Web as they do now.
Nevertheless, guaranteeing Internet freedom is a must. While ISPs have yet to take actions to manipulate the Internet for their own personal interest, the possibility always exists without net neutrality in place, especially with the industry being dominated by a few large companies alone. Furthermore, Comcast recently announced its plans to merge with Time Warner Cable. This deal would combine two of the largest cable providers in America, only further reducing competition and increasing the reach of Comcast. With the Internet being a cornerstone of the 21st century and an unparalleled means of communication between individuals of society, the government needs to recognize the importance of protecting it.
—Tan, a junior, is a Forum Editor.