Net Neutrality: Understanding The Arguments

By: James Sherrod

The term “Net Neutrality” is a simple idealistic principle that “Internet service providers should enable access to all content and applications regardless of the source, and without favoring or blocking particular products or websites”. Essentially, the idea is that the internet should remain open and uncensored.

An internet service provider is the company you pay every month for your internet. Companies like Time Warner, Comcast, Spectrum, AT&T, and Verizon are all examples of internet service providers. The idea that Comcast shouldn’t be allowed to control what websites you can and cannot go to sounds reasonable right? Then why is there so much controversy around Net Neutrality?

In an effort to prevent the internet from being controlled and manipulated there was public pressure for the Government to enact policy. These policies attempted to regulate internet service providers by preventing them from censoring information or throttling internet speeds. Despite very large and vocal support for these policies, the Federal Communications Commission removed these regulations on December 14th.

Arguments against Net Neutrality regulations:

Critics suggest that these regulations are difficult to enforce. Giving the government the necessary powers to strictly enforce the policy will enable the them to control the internet, which is contrary to the net neutrality principle. The power to enact these regulations over Internet service providers, also gives government the authority to demand censorship. This is a valid and extremely dangerous concern. Even with policies in place there are examples of the Federal government abusing their power over internet providers, and by extension the internet itself. The dangers of a government having control over the information available to its citizens cannot be overstated.

To be clear, these critics are not against the principle of Net Neutrality. Instead, they argue that these regulations have done very little to accomplish the goal of Net Neutrality and, in fact, may be hurting internet freedom. Looking more closely at the actual regulations and their enforcement suggests that these regulations weren’t really achieving Net Neutrality.

Still, some critics do not believe in the principle of Net Neutrality at its core. They argue that it is unfair to force internet service providers to charge the same rate for access to different content, often referencing the term “free market”. In my opinion, this particular view is flawed by a fundamental misunderstanding of what the internet is and what role providers play.. Internet Service providers are in a unique position to arbitrarily manipulate the market of the internet through censorship and fees. While not a perfect example, it would be similar to credit card companies charging you more based on what you purchased.

Arguments in favor of Net Neutrality regulations:

Supporters of these regulations argue that internet service providers have too much power, and are increasingly monopolizing the industry. The free market cannot work because there is no competition and the large internet providers can purchase legislation through lobbying to destroy their competitors. Without these regulations, internet providers will take advantage of their customers and create a pay to play environment for the internet. A good way to understand this is to think of the internet becoming like your cell phone data plans, where you are charged more based on how much data you use. Imagine looking at your Time Warner bill and finding an extra $30.00 fee because you watched too many episodes of Stranger Things this month.

Currently your internet provider knows everything about what you do on the internet. This information can be used against you to charge you more for websites or services you use often, or make certain information or services completely unavailable to you. This problem is made worse because of a lack of competition. If you are unhappy with your services you can’t really leave and go to another company because there just aren’t many options.

So Now What?

While these may seems like conflicting view points, for the most part they agree on the actual principle of Net Neutrality. It is important to remember that, With the exception of those tyrants who seek to manipulate the internet, we are all on the same team. We all basically agree that access to information is not something that should be controlled.

So How do we protect the internet? Whom do we trust with the awesome responsibility of allowing us to access the internet? First, we have to understand the problem. It is not Government or giant corporations that are the problem. The problem is centralized power in general. It doesn’t matter if it is Uncle Sam or Google, whenever the so much power is in the hands of so few, it will be abused.

The truth is the internet is not safe in the hands of a corporate monopoly or the Federal Communication Commission. Many people argue that we need more competition so the free market can work! While true, it is very difficult for a new internet provider to start up. There are heavy federal and local regulations. The large companies can also lobby congresses to pass laws that hurt small businesses. Beyond that, whomever controls the internet controls the information and could censor websites or search results of any competitors.

So what is the future of Net Neutrality if both options are bad?

How can we stop the abuse of power over the internet? The answer is simple, and extremely difficult. We have to disperse the power. We have to stop focusing so much on enforcing policy and start focusing on removing the actual ability to gain control over the internet.

The term used to describe this is “decentralized internet”. This term has a really broad definition but in general, simply means placing the control over the internet as close to the individual user as possible. For those of us who are not “tech people” we can think about it a different way to help us understand.

Imagine that the internet providers are represented by grocery stores. These stores allow us to access food in exchange for money. Imagine these grocery stores began using your shopping history to charge you more certain foods while making other food completely unavailable to you. This is similar to internet providers using your browsing history to charge you more for certain websites or services while making some content unavailable to you.

Now imagine that instead of getting your food from grocery stores everyone had a garden. We all provided our own food while also proving food for everyone else. That is the basic idea of decentralizing the internet. The goal is for the internet to be provided by as many small “gardens” (providers) as possible. All of us providing internet for ourselves as well as everyone else.

This fundamentally changes the infrastructure of the internet, so it is a very difficult task. However, the benefits of a decentralized internet far outweigh the costs. Not only will it make abusive control of the internet nearly impossible, but it will also protect the public from an aggressive surveillance state. By decentralizing the internet, we will have transformed it from something that can be used against us into an open and free resource we can all use.

Thankfully there are many people working on this goal already! If you support the principle of Net Neutrality, Take a minute to learn about and support efforts to create competition and/or decentralize the internet! If you are lucky enough to live an in area where a new internet provider is starting, consider trying their services to support them!

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