Leave the net alone — and neutral

Preventing corporations from discriminating against websites and users is essential to free, open speech.

by Lolla Mohammed Nur

As part of a generation that grew up with modern technology at our fingertips, itâÄôs easy for college students to take their Internet access for granted.

We assume we can access anything online, at any time and at the fastest speed possible, without corporate interference.

But what we view as a right is at constant risk of becoming an expensive privilege. Although it may not be on your radar, the net neutrality debate has been raging since the early 2000s and its outcomes will affect how we access, use and pay for services and websites online.

Put simply, net neutrality is a principle that says the Internet should remain free, open, and unregulated. Regardless of who is using a website  âÄî a corporation, a blogger, a college student  âÄî net neutrality says that everyone should have equal access to online services and websites, and every website should be given non-discriminatory treatment from Internet Service Providers (ISPs).

The neutrality debate started in 2007, when the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) prevented Comcast from slowing access to peer-to-peer sharing sites. ComcastâÄôs stake in the issue was its profit: If consumers could download music and movies online for free, not only did this take up the networkâÄôs bandwidth space but the cable company also lost money.

Since then, ISPs have continued to demand the right to charge web users on a âÄúpay to playâÄù basis. This model would charge users more for different levels of service speed, access, and quality, so the more you pay, the faster your service would be.

It sounds logical: If youâÄôre willing to pay more you should get more for it. ItâÄôs only fair, right?

Not really. The problem with allowing major broadband corporations the power to choose what we see is that there would be no guarantee of nondiscrimination against certain websites. Our ISPs would be playing the role of gatekeeper over a medium that, since its inception, has been the hallmark of open and free speech.

For instance, Comcast currently runs Fancast, a site similar to Hulu, but less popular. Without net neutrality, thereâÄôs no guarantee Comcast wouldnâÄôt slow access to its competitor Hulu, then charge users more to access the site. Also, ISPs could impose higher fees on websites that use more space and bandwidth and charge companies for higher priority access speeds.  

This is a step backward, as America is already behind other developed countries in Internet speed. We pay morefor our services yet we get 10 times slower access than some European nations and 30 times slower speed than Japan.

The tiered system would also disproportionately affect independent websites and small businesses. If ISPs had their way, small startups âÄî as Google and YouTube once were âÄî wouldnâÄôt be able to pay for priority access speeds. This would stifle competition against mega-corporations, as well as shut out diversity online.

Ironically, opponents of net neutrality argue a tiered model would increase competition. As long as consumers choose to pay for faster services, competing ISPs would be compelled to offer services at better rates, allowing the free market to regulate itself.

But if ISPs taxedwebsites âÄî regardless of the websiteâÄôs size or financial capacity âÄî for increased visibility online, network owners would restrict the range of services and websites available to consumers.And whoâÄôs to say that an ISP like Verizon wouldnâÄôt favor one of its own services over a competing service, like Skype or Netflix?

Furthermore, increased costs would exacerbate the digital divide by discriminating against low-income households who already lack the finances to pay for Internet access. According to a 2009 poll taken by the U.S. Department of Commerce, 26 percent of Americans already canâÄôt afford to subscribe to high-speed Internet.

The proposed tiered system would reduce minority representations online, which is already low. Only 46 percent of blacks and 40 percent of Latinos use broadband, compared to 66 percent of whites. Considering that communities of color also tend to be low income, it wouldnâÄôt be a stretch to call the proposed system of control digital segregation. 

Despite the stakes involved, only 21 percent of Americans support net neutrality, according to a recent Rasmussen poll. Fifty four percent of respondents are against regulation and 25 percent arenâÄôt certain. However, itâÄôs not clear most Americans really understand net neutrality.

According to the same poll, only 20 percent said they are following news about the issue âÄúvery closely,âÄù and 35 percent said theyâÄôre following it âÄúsomewhat closely.âÄù A 2006 poll showed that 93 percent of Americans had never heard of net neutrality in the first place, which is worrisome.

A silver lining is that the FCC passed new neutrality rules in December, preventing phone and cable companies from discriminating against online content. The rules require providers to disclose how they manage their networks but they donâÄôt prohibit paid prioritization.

They also fall short of preventing ISPs from blocking content and services on mobile Internet connections. This means that your mobile network could potentially block your mobile access to an application, forcing you to use the networkâÄôs own competing application at a higher cost.

We need to continue to be vigilant, especially since House Republicans voted last month to prevent the usage of federal funds to implement the FCCâÄôs new rules. The underlying principal of the Internet has always been the right to communication and free speech, which are crucial to a thriving democracy. Now letâÄôs keep it that way.