Over the past few years, a term that was only previously used among telecommunications specialists has dominated the public debate over the internet: net neutrality. Disagreement over whether internet service providers should offer net neutrality, or not, has evolved into a full-on war.
What Is Net Neutrality?
Net neutrality helps ensure that internet service providers do not throttle, block, or discriminate against specific types of content, apps or organizations. The term “net neutrality” was coined in 2003 by Tim Wu, a media law professor at Columbia University. It means that ISPs must treat all data that is transferred through their servers fairly and not discriminate across websites, platforms, users, applications or content.
Ever since 2010, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has laid down rules that support net neutrality in some form. However, one of the main agenda items of President Donald Trump’s administration was the “total repeal” of Barack Obama’s net neutrality policies. Even though the decision to abolish net neutrality has come into effect, the war seems far from over.
Net Neutrality Affects Us All
It is hard to imagine a world where our access to the internet does not dictate several aspects of our personal and professional lives. It has changed the way we work, we commute, we communicate, we learn, and how we entertain ourselves.
The way we experience the internet is greatly affected by where we live. Different regulations apply to different countries. Some of the more tech-savvy among us have found ways to bypass geo-restrictions. By using a VPN with geographically diverse servers, you can access content blocked or throttled in certain countries. However, some regulations extend beyond borders. The recent EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is a great example of that. Since US policy is at the core of internet innovation, what happens with net neutrality in the United States, may affect the rest of the world.
The Fundamental Question
In essence, net neutrality advocates and opponents disagree about how providing access to the internet should be understood and regulated. Is internet access just another telecommunications service? Should private companies be free to make up the rules? Or is it more akin to a public utility like gas or water that should be regulated more intensely?
Net neutrality supporters argue that we cannot imagine a world where the internet does not affect our daily lives profoundly. The power of streamlining or impeding internet access on the part of internet service providers should not be treated light-heartedly.
On the other hand, opponents argue that net neutrality is an unnecessarily “heavy-handed” approach that impedes innovation and investment.
The War Over Net Neutrality
Net neutrality supporters suffered a substantial setback in 2017 when the new FCC Chairman, Ajit Pai, announced a plan to dismantle net neutrality rules. Advocates argue that this new system will allow ISPs to provide lower quality services. For example, slower access if they do not agree with the content. Internet speed is power. Internet users tend to become impatient when content takes too long to load. So repealing net neutrality could create a biased Internet. Big media organizations, companies or even political parties would be able to pay ISPs to favor their content.
The change just came into effect on June 11th, 2018 and there are already attempts are to overthrow it, like the recent Senate vote in favor of net neutrality. Meanwhile, activists, companies, and lobbyists are drawing up lawsuits in an issue that could even affect the next elections.
It seems that the war over net neutrality is far from over. What will both sides of the debate bring to this battle? It will be interesting to see how policy changes unfold in the run-up to the next US presidential election.