Over the past couple weeks, the issue of Net Neutrality received a lot of attention due to a clash of opinions between President Obama and FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler. For those of you who don’t know what net neutrality is, simply put, it is the principle that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and the government should treat all data equally, meaning that no Internet Company can pay money for preferential speeds on the side of the consumers. This concept has been the soul of the Internet since its creation, and it has lead to the booming levels of innovation and easy access to information that we generally take for granted. Obama recently released a statement expressing his deep support for net neutrality. In fact, he is planning on pushing Wheeler to reclassify Internet Services under Title 2 of the telecommunications act, basically meaning that the Internet will legally be considered a utility that is essential for everyday life.
For as much news coverage and talk net neutrality has received, it is not as controversial as the media makes it out to be. Not only is Obama pushing to sustain net neutrality, but in the past 6 months, over 4 million U.S. citizens of all political affiliations have submitted public comments to the FCC expressing their overwhelmingly high support of net neutrality. Even large and successful internet companies that would greatly profit from paying broadband companies for higher speeds, such as Etsy and Kickstarter, have explicitly stated their strong advocacy for a continual open internet.
Not only are there an ideological and free-speech related arguments for net neutrality, but there is also an economic rationale. The market for broadband Internet is an oligopoly, and a very uncompetitive one at that. There are a few companies, such as Comcast and Verizon, with extremely high market power. In contrast, the market for online services is a very competitive monopolistic competition in the sense that there are many competing firms with very easy access to enter the marketplace. Without regulation, Internet companies have the ability to thrive and innovate to their greatest potential. Stifling net neutrality would take money out of the more competitive online services. It would be as if some websites were riding on a fast lane, while smaller websites would be riding on a dirt road. This would likely curb innovation, as consumers would probably avoid the slower websites, creating a large gap in the success of websites that could afford to pay ISPs, and those who could not.
So, if most people can agree on the merits of net neutrality, why is it being talked about on a grand scale so recently? An article by Wired brings up an important question that proponents of net neutrality seldom ask: are we happy with the state of America’s internet service providers and the way they conduct their business? The answer is definitely no. Comcast, the United State’s largest ISP, was dubbed the “worst company in America” by the Consumerist based on public opinion polls. In addition, Netflix, which supports 1 billion hours of TV and movie watching per month, stifled the ideal of perfect Net Neutrality by agreeing to pay Comcast to directly connect to its customers so that Netflix’s speed increases. This benefited not only the company, but its consumers due to the fact that they can watch a TV show or movie without worrying about buffering, and it doesn’t cost them a cent more.
Net neutrality has been the backbone of the internet since its creation. This ideal has lead to a high amount of innovation that most people don’t consciously think of on a regular basis. There is no dispute that the internet is currently an integral part of the average person’s life, and will definitely become increasingly prominent in the future. Keeping internet content separate from service providers has proven to be the majority of public opinion, but there are definitely issues with the internet that can possibly be solved through the deviation of net neutrality.