The net neutrality war is still going, and we may be losing

We should demand an open, fair Internet in the 21st century.

by Trent M. Kays

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit decided Verizon v. Federal Communications Commission earlier this year, which focused on the 2010 FCC Open Internet Order that restricted broadband providers from blocking, engaging in unreasonable discrimination and being opaque with websites. The court decided in favor of Verizon, finding that the FCC didn’t have the authority to enforce an open Internet.

The case is a hive of complex jargon and legal arguments spanning the past 75 years, reaching as far back as the Communications Act of 1934. The FCC decided against appealing the case to the Supreme Court, and instead, it will re-examine its order and then proceed.

In a turn for the worst, FCC statements earlier this month suggest that it will usher in companies to make the Internet less equal, less fair and anything but neutral.

The significance of the situation is staggering. The overarching issue at work concerns the very freedoms Internet users depend on to interact with the world. The issue, so-called “net neutrality,” advocates that Internet service providers should treat all Internet data and traffic equally. This means that no data is more valuable than any other, and therefore, we should not regulate access to said data.

Unless you’ve kept up with Internet law, this issue may have escaped your notice. This is for good reason. We’ve taken our access to the Internet for granted, not realizing that we were guaranteed certain rights of speed and access. The Internet is so important that it is integrated into nearly all facets of our lives — from our cars to our refrigerators to our smartphones.

Without enforced net neutrality, ISPs can decide what websites and data users are allowed to access. Moreover, corporations can pay extra for faster access to their websites and data and to have slower access to their competitors’ websites and data. As it stands now, users can access any website or data that’s available on the Internet at the speed they paid for.

This perception may seem hyperbolic, but in 2005, critics accused Comcast of singling out users who use specific applications to send data. In 2008, the FCC upheld the complaint against Comcast, despite the latter’s strong objections. In the 2008 decision, the application in question was BitTorrent, which sends large packets of information across the Internet. Comcast argued that a few people using BitTorrent account for a large amount of the network. This argument was specious, and as such, the FCC shot it down. Those who use BitTorrent paid for access to the network and are entitled to its use.

Comcast’s move to slow certain applications shouldn’t surprise us. It’s part of the problem with capitalism. If you pay, you can have just about whatever you want. Consider this: There may be a time when access to Target’s website is fast but access to Occupy Wall Street’s site is slow. Similarly, access to environmental activism sites is slow in West Virginia, while polluting energy industry websites are lightning fast in the same state. This situation isn’t unlike the Internet experience in countries that actively police websites.

Perhaps foreseeing this situation, Stanford University professor Lawrence Lessig and University of Illinois professor Robert McChesney argued in 2006 that “[n]et neutrality means simply that all like Internet content must be treated alike and move at the same speed over the network. The owners of the Internet’s wires cannot discriminate.”

The last sentence is, perhaps, the most effective in considering the importance of net neutrality. Without such neutrality, Internet access would become much like cable television access. Lessig and McChesney have another suggestion. “This is the simple but brilliant ‘end-to-end’ design of the Internet that has made it such a powerful force for economic and social good: All of the intelligence and control is held by producers and users, not the networks that connect them.”

The economic and social good of the Internet is undeniable. Revolutions of life, society and humanity have begun and ended on the Internet. All of these have only been possible because information travels indiscriminately across the networks that connect so many of us.

For education, net neutrality is vital. Education in the 21st century relies on almost instantaneous access to information and knowledge. The Internet created and answers this need. Imagine having to pay for online course credit and also paying extra to your ISP just to access the course material in a timely manner. Or consider that private universities could pay exorbitantly for “premium” Internet traffic, while public universities struggle to meet the cost.

Would you pay extra just to visit an activist site? Or pay extra for adequate access to online course material? The Internet is a beast, and we need to maintain it in a way that allows all those with access to experience information equally. Otherwise, corporations that are more concerned with profit than people will control what information everyday citizens are able to access the most readily.

Indeed, when one goes to the library, anyone can check out a library item with their library card. They’ve secured the right to do so. It doesn’t matter if it’s an old tattered copy of “The Communist Manifesto” or a new fiction novel about teenage vampires. Their library card ensures they have equal access to both. They do not need to pay extra just to read the newer, more popular book.

The Internet is vital to so many. It should work in a similar manner.