Ok, so I’m not an expert on Net Neutrality nor do I ascribe to know every little detail of the potential for the FCC to reclassify parts of the communication structure so they can begin regulating the Internet. But here’s the situation where it stands right now.
Where We Are Now
Right now, the Obama administration has suggested for the FCC to reclassify some communications so that it can begin regulating the Internet within the United States. Currently there is no regulating body for the Internet in the USA, so basically anybody can do anything on it, period. The Obama administration sees this as a potential threat to the openness of the Internet because without regulation, Internet service providers (ISPs) can do whatever they please with that access. Allowing the FCC to regulate the Internet allows it to tell ISPs what they can and cannot do, where right now ISPs have pretty much a free reign. Without regulation, ISPs cannot be forced to abide by Net Neutrality.
The status quo of ISPs is that nobody really does this kind of thing en-masse. There were a few instances recently where some ISPs tried blocking torrent access, which in some lights is understandable. Torrents are massively peer-based downloads that allow you to get parts of a file from all over. A lot of torrent activity is illegal, but at the same time there are plenty of legal uses for torrents, so blocking them outright also blocks legitimate use. While none are really using these tactics, some have suggested they might to increase their bottom lines.
Ok, What’s Net Neutrality?
I’m glad you asked. Net Neutrality is the idea that ISPs have to be neutral about the content flowing through their networks. Net Neutrality (NN from hereon out) means that an ISP cannot look into the content any of its subscribers is accessing for any reason other than legal issues. There are a lot of proponents of NN and from what I’ve seen and understand, not a whole lot of consumers that don’t want it.
Without NN, ISPs can basically do whatever they want in regards to the content flowing through their networks. There are plenty of worst-case scenarios out there when it comes to this subject, so we’ll stay away from those as they’re unlikely. After all, even if ISPs start going against NN and use content requests to make decisions, consumers won’t stick with an ISP when they have a choice for another if their current ISP starts getting too draconian.
One great example I found online mimics the tiered strategy that television service providers use to make tiers of different channels, like so:
In this example, you would have to pay your ISP $10 more per month to be able to access music-related websites and services, such as iTunes. Yes, in this example, not only would you be paying anywhere from 69 to 129 cents per song, you’d also be paying $10 per month to your ISP for the right to access iTunes’ Internet services at all.
Another example of what an ISP could do is dropping the transfer rate of traffic. So instead of blocking access entirely, an ISP could just put certain traffic at a lower priority in terms of speed. If this were the case, then you could have reduced service to iTunes unless you pay $10 more per month.
Now let’s apply a different tactic to blocking or slowing service. Instead of charging the consumer extra to access those websites, an ISP could instead charge the website operator some fee to keep their website on a normal service level. So unless Apple pays your ISP in some fee structure, the ISP could simply block or slow traffic to iTunes because Apple wouldn’t pay the ransom, err extortion, err fee.
These are just some examples of what ISPs could do if they were not bound to NN. I’m sure creative executives could come up with all sorts of ideas to extract more money from consumers and website operators alike.
So What’s The Government Planning?
The Obama administration wants the FCC to reclassify parts of communication so it can regulate the Internet. Without a regulator, ISPs can do whatever they like including making decisions based on the content running through their networks. However if the FCC were regulating Internet usage then ISPs would be bound to whatever decisions the FCC makes. The idea behind this, as far as the Obama administration goes, is that the FCC will enforce NN thus ISPs won’t be able to use any tactics like I’ve described before.
But Regulation Is Bad!
A lot argue that government regulation is bad. Sometimes it is, sometimes the government can overreach and over-regulate things. However in this case, the lack of regulation means ISPs can gouge consumers and limit access in whatever ways they deem fit. This is an instance, in my opinion, where adding a regulatory body does more good than harm. Sure, we want the government in as little as possible, but regulations also make sure companies aren’t engaging in activity that is contrary to the public interest, such as limiting website access.
One could argue that this would be opening the door to a “government takeover” of the Internet. This is far from the truth. Regulation is not the same thing as a government takeover. We already have government regulation for automobiles because without it, there’d be no safety standards. This is much the same thing. The public’s interest in unfettered access to the Internet is at stake here. A government takeover means the government would run the Internet, and that’s not the case. The government would just start telling ISPs what they can and cannot do.
Sure, someday the government could abuse this regulatory oversight to start doing some things ISPs might have done. They might mandate some sort of limit on torrents or make sure all content gets filtered by the government. That’s what China does, pretty much, and I don’t ever see that happening because US citizens would riot if it did. Hell, I think some citizens might riot against an ISP if one truly broke against NN.
Companies Can Do Whatever They Want!! It’s Their Network!
Well right now, yes. But what I’m paying for is access to the Internet. Not for my ISP (which happens to be CenturyLink) to tell me “Hey Robert, you can’t access CNN.com until you pay us $5 more per month!” If consumers went into purchasing Internet access from an ISP with the intent to buy unfettered access, such is the case now, then that access should remain unfettered.
Sure, most companies can do whatever they want — within the limits of their regulations, of course. Saying that a company should be able to operate its business however it wants is a weak argument, in my opinion, because look at the BP disaster. Hell, they were regulated and it still happened. It’s obviously a case where the public interest is better served in actual regulation, rather than allowing BP to do whatever the hell it wanted, thus ending up in this massive oil leak. Companies should be able to operate as they see fit, but within acceptable boundaries.
They Don’t Need Regulation
Quite the contrary, I believe ISPs need regulation. Especially to keep them from breaking against NN. The whole idea of the Internet is this open massive platform allowing people to push out whatever they like for anybody to access. The Internet is like a massive Democracy in some respects. People “vote” for what they want by visiting those sites. But if ISPs start limiting access in some arbitrary manner, then that freedom is lost and those “votes” can’t be cast. Imagine if ISPs restricted access to Twitter in its early days. It probably wouldn’t have taken off. Say what you will about the time-sink that Twitter and Facebook are, but if your access to them was restricted or you were charged more to access them, those two would also be ones to suffer. So while you’re arguing an ISP should be able to conduct its affairs however it sees fit, realize that the consumer and Twitter/Facebook are also “harmed” in this instance.
No Regulation = Free Speech
Someone mentioned that keeping the government from regulating the Internet is the safest way to maintain free speech… I disagree. Without NN, ISPs can block or slow access to all sorts of content, which is against free speech, or at least free access to it. If ISPs are allowed to pick and choose the content they deliver, then they’re restricting free speech, which is unconstitutional. Thus, you might even say that the government has a responsibility to ensure unfettered access to the Internet.
Companies Already Charge For Faster Speeds
Well yes, they do. But they charge for faster speeds for the entire Internet, not just some sites selectively. What you’re paying for there is just a fatter pipe with more bandwidth to be able to download things faster. So let’s extend this argument out and say, “What if an ISP simply slows speeds to CNN.com, but doesn’t block it, and charges for faster access?” This is still an instance where the content is dictating the service and the ISP exercising authority over the stream of packs you’ve requested.
The Internet Is A Priveledge
Again, I disagree, to some extent. If you can afford to pay for the Internet you should get it all. More and more of our daily lives are online and more and more depends on the Internet. Imagine the world without the Internet today. No online bill pay, no Netflix streaming… No eCommerce. Sometimes you actually need access to the Internet to get some things done. The US would grind to a crawl without the Internet in this day and age.
Status Quo Is Just Fine
Given that ISPs are currently not engaging in anti-NN behavior, for the most part, then the status quo is fine. But the status quo assumes they won’t reverse and start going against NN. And the status quo means they still can should they choose to. We should definitely not allow them that opportunity to limit users’ free choice of what they want to access online.
The Free Market Works
Did the Wall Street and mortgage meltdowns not convince you? A lack of regulation there is definitely a big contributor to why that happened. The free market does not always work, regulation is still required to ensure the proper operation of a market. This is more of an idealogical issue anyway, so I know I won’t really convince anybody on this one.
Also, one note on free markets. If a market was 100% free then monopolies and collusions could exist, which means if the ISP market was a 100% free market, they could all collude to block FoxNews.com unless you paid $50 per month to gain access. And legally you could do nothing about it. Personally, I don’t like Fox News, but it’s still wrong dammit.
A Christian ISP Would Want To Block Porn!
This was an interesting one and caused me to ponder for awhile. Currently there exists no Christian ISPs in the US. The function of an ISP is to offer access to the Internet. A Christian ISP would want to block anything they deem non-Christian… But I’m going to point to what the Internet currently is and should be. A massively open and 100% accessible platform of websites and services. And I’m obviously of the opinion that access to it should always be fully open. Thus, if there were a Christian ISP, then I would disagree that it should be blocking content because I fully believe in NN.
On another note, I’m a practicing Catholic and if I were subscribing to a Christian ISP, I would not want them blocking any content. Client programs can be installed on the user’s end to block access. So if a user doesn’t want to allow access to things inside their home they can, but the ISP doesn’t get to do that across the board for people that don’t want it done.
I mean, think about it. Every Christian is different. Let’s imagine MyChristianISP.com (trademark pending, haha) is my provider. I want to look at Site A (not a porn site), but Site A offends about 55% of all MyChristianISP.com subscribers, so it gets blocked. Do you see the problem here? 45% of my fellow peers that are fine with accessing that site can’t. That kind of control belongs with the users.
Government Shouldn’t Run Companies For Themselves
Fully no. A government should not be 100% in full telling a company how it can run itself. But we already have government regulations in place to prevent illegal monopolies or from firms using their market power to gouge consumers. There are limits to what is acceptable for a company to do.
Companies are like people. They are entities in the eyes of the government. If you were to say that the government shouldn’t run people’s lives, then you’re basically saying the government need not exist and anarchy can rule the land. It’s preposterous. Companies, just like people, should not be allowed to do whatever the hell they want, because it may not always be in the public’s best interest. This argument allows a company to price discriminate based on age or religion. It allows a company free reign over whatever it wants to do.
Obviously there needs to be a line drawn somewhere, and I’m all for a line being drawn that includes NN as the rule of the land.
Personally, I believe the Internet to be this big open playground where people can put up and access whatever they like. Any content restrictions should be on a user-by-user basis, thus limitations should exist in home networks and home machines, not at the ISP level. It is not CenturyLink’s place to tell me what I can or cannot access. I am paying them for access to the entire Internet and that is how it should remain. Just because television and radio have different access levels doesn’t mean they should be extended to the Internet.
If you’re reading this post and you don’t know me very well, you may not have picked up on the fact that I run websites. Now you understand another reason I am so adamantly in favor of NN. Without NN, there is the possibility that I could face fees with any number of ISPs to keep OMGN from being added to a “slow websites” list. And if there are 100 ISPs in the country all asking for a $5 fee per month so they won’t slow access to my website, suddenly I have to pay $500 per month to keep it online.
Fuck that. America is all about people pulling themselves up by their bootstraps and making it for themselves. I cannot do that with my websites if I’m subject to countless fees because there is no NN. It’s completely against the American dream, folks, to start allowing ISPs to restrict access to the Internet in whatever ways they see fit.
I understand the potential for a slippery slope in regards to allowing the US Government to regulate Internet access. At some point in the future it could suddenly reverse course and start censoring things. But the US Government has a pretty damn short history of censorship. There’s a much lower likelihood of that happening than for ISPs to start restricting access to content, because they’ve talked about it. In this case, I’ll take the evil of the US Government over the evil that is John Doe ISP Corporation. ISPs have an incentive to censor Internet access, the US Government – not quite as much.
The whole thing here is that Internet access via an ISP should be 100% free and clear. That’s what consumers are paying for and that’s what they should get. It’s not a case where the ISP should be able to determine what their networks deliver. They’re in the wrong business if that’s the case. An ISP is supposed to allow access and not dictate what people can get, because if an ISP is the only Internet provider in town, then you may get no other choice but to use them and only them. The ISP should not care what you’re accessing, only that you’re paying for that access.
I feel very strongly about this issue because I am an IT professional, a user of the Internet and a website operator. Thus I hope you understand why I feel the way I do, even if many of you are afraid of what more US Government regulation may do here. I’m more afraid of what ISPs may do, thus my stance on the subject. I’m sure the fact that this post clocks in at over 2,800 words also illustrates how passionate I am about the subject.
Read Marek’s comment on this post, he makes a very valid comment. He cites that if an ISP started restricting access to a particular website and required users to pay for that website, then the ISP would reap all of the profits of that pricing structure whereas the website owner would not only get none of the profits, but would also suffer degraded traffic to their website because not everybody would pay for the access. This is in stark contrast to how television service providers work, where they pay subscriber-based royalties back to the operators of the channels that are in said tiers, such as premier sports channels you have to pay extra for. That was a point I was originally starting to think about when I started writing this post but promptly forgot about and never expanded upon, but Marek poses a very, very good point.