What Does Net Neutrality Really Mean to You?

How confused are you by the notion of Net Neutrality? Would you have voted “yay” or “nay”?

Last week’s United States FCC (Federal Communications Commission) vote ended Net Neutrality. It went 3-to-2 along obvious political party partisanships, just as the vote in 2015 went the same way to establish the principal, except with a different political party in charge.

As The New York Times reports:

“The action reversed the agency’s 2015 decision, during the Obama administration, to have stronger oversight over broadband providers as Americans have migrated to the internet for most communications. It reflected the view of the Trump administration and the new F.C.C. chairman that unregulated business will eventually yield innovation and help the economy.”

To help with context, I recommend “Right to Left” from The New York Times, which shows the a bipartisan view of the implications of a so-called Net Neutrality rollback. But for now, let’s get the ball rolling with definitions:

Wikipedia defines Net Neutrality as:

“The principle that Internet service providers must treat all data on the Internet the same, and not discriminate or charge differently by user, content, website, platform, application, type of attached equipment, or method of communication. For instance, under these principles, internet service providers are unable to intentionally block, slow down or charge money for specific websites and online content.”

Yet lest you think this is a new debate rooted in the digital economy, the true genesis of this issue began in the 1870s, when Western Union Telegraph had a monopoly on wire communications and colluded with the Associated Press to get President Rutherford Hayes elected.

Understandably, the notion of unregulated power given to those who control the means of transmitting information didn’t sit well. So in the 1930’s, Congress enacted legislation that effectively limited the ability of what was then known as “Ma Bell” to abuse its monopolistic position in telephony. That President Roosevelt had a prescient understanding of a system that needed to change is fascinating. Up to that point, legislation had only regulated radio. But “Electronic Communications” was a bigger and future-facing need. The Communications Act of 1934 states:

“For the purpose of regulating interstate and foreign commerce in communication by wire and radio so as to make available, so far as possible, to all the people of the United States a rapid, efficient, nationwide, and worldwide wire and radio communication service with adequate facilities at reasonable charges.”

An easier way of understanding the issue might be to look at the heart of the debate, the notion of a Common Carrier:

“A common carrier offers its services to the general public under license or authority provided by a regulatory body. The regulatory body has usually been granted “ministerial authority” by the legislation that created it. The regulatory body may create, interpret, and enforce its regulations upon the common carrier (subject to judicial review) with independence and finality, as long as it acts within the bounds of the enabling legislation… A common carrier holds itself out to provide service to the general public without discrimination (to meet the needs of the regulator’s quasi judicial role of impartiality toward the public’s interest) for the “public convenience and necessity.”… Public airlines, railroads, bus lines, taxicab companies, phone companies, internet service providers, cruise ships, motor carriers (i.e., canal operating companies, trucking companies), and other freight companies generally operate as common carriers.”

Simply put, the question is: do you believe that your internet provider is a common carrier or not?

Clearly the implications either way are massive…and despite all the hype, it’s not clear what those implications are. If the internet is a common carrier, then it must deliver per the rules. If not, all bets seem to be off, and I fear that some confuse Internet related issues and regulation possibilities.

Net Neutrality has nothing to do with Fake News, trolling, bad behavior, or any of the issues related to content that we all swirl around. In fact, here is a piece from 2014, “What Everyone Gets Wrong in the Debate Over Net Neutrality” published by Wired. It could have been written today:

“Even Tim Wu, the man who coined the term net neutrality, will tell you that the fast lane idea isn’t what it seems. “The fast lane is not a literal truth,” he says. “But it’s a sense that you should have a fair shot.” On the modern internet, as Wu indicates, the real issue is that such a small number of internet service providers now control the pipes that reach out to U.S. consumers—and that number is getting even smaller… The real issue is that the Comcasts and Verizons are becoming too big and too powerful. Because every web company has no choice but to go through these ISPs, the Comcasts and the Verizons may eventually have too much freedom to decide how much companies must pay for fast speeds.”

However, destroying Net Neutrality will no doubt cost money, by forcing content providers to get access to you via the owners of the pipes. Think of cable TV, where you pay for the channels you want… except this time, because of its complexity, the vast realm of the web may not be as simple as your choice of a specific cable channel. No doubt, this will create a hierarchy of content delivery. Furthermore, it is not untrue to say that the established digital economy will be limited.

What does this mean? That the so-called Tech Giants who can afford to pay can raise rates for access and advertising. And you, the consumer, will end up paying a bit more for goods and services.

But the questions continue:

Will ending Net Neutrality limit innovation, or will it only slow down movies from certain providers who haven’t paid the premium?

Will we end up with a world of Amazon, Facebook and Netflix, with the rest controlled by the former common carriers who will hold us hostage for their own content?

Will Netflix be hit the hardest?

Clearly, we might soon find out.

At the end of the day, the debate is clouded from all sides… and worse, obfuscated by the worst of partisan thinking and voting.

To me the issue cuts both ways. It’s easy to jump on a bandwagon, but much harder to balance between two bandwagons barreling along a rutted road. The Atlantic articulates it best for me in “Net Neutrality Was Never Enough”:

“Data has become the blood that courses through the veins of ordinary life. This is why everyone in the debate is so passionate. But it’s also worth remembering that this is just a metaphor. The world is still out there, underneath and above all the fiber-optic lines that would take it online.

When it comes to net neutrality, supporting or opposing it is no longer sufficient. Killing net neutrality probably won’t make things better, but keeping it without any other substantive changes will ensure things get worse—instead of civics, only mania will remain. The internet is as much the enemy as it is the hero of contemporary life.”

I began by asking if you are confused… and by now, if you stayed with me, you may be even more so. But maybe that’s the price we pay for the great gift of digital we have.

Listen:

“The Internet is the first thing that humanity has built that humanity doesn’t understand, the largest experiment in anarchy that we have ever had.” 

– Eric Schmidt

This highlights the crux of the issue: Is the anarchy experiment in the providers of services and content, or in those who receive it all? Vote for one or the other…or maybe a little bit of both.

Remember, as The Atlantic article says:

“It is not the free and open internet that must be eulogized, but the public’s blindness to its consequences.”

How did you cast your vote?

What do you think?

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